December 11, 1998 (Ira Pilgrim)

Success and Failure

Failure, n. One side of a coin; the other side of which is success.

A number of young people set out to become championship swimmers. It may not seem like much to do something that a guppy can do better; but that is what they set out to do. Of that number, a handful get to the Olympics. Of that handful, only one wins the gold medal. What separated the gold medalist from the silver medalist may be a time of just a few hundredths of a second. One has succeeded and all of the rest have failed.

Early in my scientific career, I got involved with two people at the National Cancer Institute. One, a woman, was an experimental pathologist. Her magnum opus was a monograph on tumors of the immune system in mice. She was about 20 years older than I and she helped me and several others get started in the field. One of the people she helped, was a man of about my age, who did brilliant work on tumors of the immune system. It was the kind of stuff that Nobel prizes are made of and it made him famous in the field for a short time. I was very proud to have contributed to that work.

When she was elected president of the American Association for Cancer Research, she received the acknowledgement of her colleagues that she had sought. She was a success. My other colleague, despite the brilliance of his work, is all but forgotten. If he had aspired to the Nobel, as well he might have, then he might consider himself a failure.

The stories of these two people are not unusual. It happens all of the time. The public never hears about it. The people the public hear about are those who win the prizes and people like Salk and Sabin who happen to do something that the press and the public thinks is important. The people who did the basic research that made their contribution possible are unknown to the public. A veterinarian named Bill Boynton, who worked on hog cholera (a virus disease of swine), and others, made the live polio vaccine possible. Was he a success? I don't know what he aspired to. If it was fame, then he was a failure.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian(now Czech) monk and high school teacher of mathematics and experimental physics, did the work that is basic to everything that has ever been done in genetics; including genetic engineering. His work wasn't recognized by his colleagues until 45 years after he had published the work, and 15 years after he had died. Mendel knew what he had discovered, yet considered himself a failure as a scientist. He was a success as a priest, because he was elected abbott of his monastery. He was a superb scientist; but as an abbott, he really wasn't very good. He lacked the political skills for the job.

Two people start similar businesses, ten years apart. One succeeds because the economy is booming; the other fails because it is in a slump. Both can be equally competent and diligent. Had the timing of their enterprises been reversed, their fates might also have been reversed. One entrepreneur might believe that he was successful because he was clever, while the other might believe he is a failure because he was stupid.

What is the point of all of this? To my reader, it may have no point at all. To me, it is the difference between success and failure.

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