Public health solutions through diplomacy, humanity

If science is Dr. Peter Hartsock’s vocation, then history is his avocation. In his world, the two are forever interwoven.

Hartsock originally came to the Berg to get a true liberal arts and sciences education, or in the words of Gandhi, “science with humanity.” That is precisely what he received, and he’s profoundly grateful for the multitude of ways it informed his thinking and influenced his life’s work.

“I’ve used history in everything I’ve done, including lessons from the past to figure strategies for overcoming political and other obstacles to life-saving research,” said the history major who doubled up on science courses, too.

For nearly four decades, Hartsock, ’69, has confronted some of the world’s most controversial, complex and far-reaching health crises from his position as a commissioned captain with the U.S. Public Health Service and director and research scientist officer for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He has spent the bulk of his career traveling the world, working in HIV/AIDS epidemiology/intervention, drug abuse and other emerging diseases.

His Heidelberg years helped him develop an interdisciplinary world view and approach to solving problems. “It helped me realize that there is far more than just a ‘bottom line’ to what one does and that an individual can make a difference,” Hartsock said.

In 1990, he was one of the first people to visit the former Soviet Union to report on and help develop epidemiologic and related prevention research on AIDS interventions that focused on drug users. That set the stage for more than three decades of research partnerships with Russia and Ukraine. The Russia partnership, among others, exemplifies Hartsock’s commitment to “health diplomacy” as an effective way to foster international  cooperation relative to health issues, such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

One of Hartsock’s crowning achievements was co-authoring – with Dr. C. Everett Koop – the historic, and for its time, provocative Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS in 1986. He also worked with the surgeon general on related issues such as development of safer syringe technology and needle/syringe exchange programs. On many other occasions, Hartsock has taken on big public health issues in much the same way the now-deceased Koop confronted AIDS – with social conscience. He’s not afraid to opine on controversial health topics in the media. These days, he is tackling the contemporary issue that has many taking sides: whether or not to vaccinate children.

“I try hard to write about reality,” he said, “regardless of how unpleasant it may be. But ignoring it leads to many a bad event.”

Beyond science, Hartsock has a strong interest in the social, economic and political ramifications of diseases and how they can be mitigated – yet another example of his liberal arts training coming so strongly into play – that idea of “science with humanity.”

“The liberal arts and sciences inform each other in what I have done,” said Hartsock. “There is no course I have ever taken which did not help me in one way or another and many ways altogether to deal with the real world, including scientific, social, political and other problems which are linked to each other in often semi-invisible ways.”

We must always be informed by both history and science, he added. “Policies and practices without true historical context and guidance can and often do become the worst enemies of humanity.”

Today, Hartsock’s work for NIDA/NIH continues. He’s busy managing international research grants on drug abuse, especially the opioid crisis, HIV/AIDS and related issues, distributing millions in research funds. But there’s another side to this Renaissance man. Hartsock has been a lifelong physical fitness fanatic. A track and field athlete at Heidelberg, he took a course in senior lifesaving at the Berg which proved to be life-changing. “This set me up for a career as a professional ocean lifeguard. … I always wanted to get my doctorate and become a professional lifeguard, and that’s just what I did,” he said.

Hartsock regularly patrolled ocean beaches near his East Coast home for more than 30 years. He founded the Delaware United Open Water Life Saving Program and served on the board of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
His love of history has taken him in yet another direction. He’s on the board of the last fully operational World War II Liberty ship in the world, the SS John W. Brown. The ship is owned by the crew, Hartsock explained, and they’ve put hundreds of thousands of dollars and 2.5 million hours of volunteer labor into maintaining it in sailing condition. Additionally, he worked to help rescue the last three original main guns of the USS Missouri, a massive pilgrimage that nearly failed, and he participated in a documentary about George Washington.

His time at Heidelberg was highlighted by a strong sense of community, which, coming from a self-described non-conformist, might not seem to add up. But it did for Hartsock.

Heidelberg gave him the tools to achieve difficult goals, the ethical sense to determine what those goals should be and the wherewithal to never cease working to achieve them – in his vocation, his avocation, or simply in being human. “I honestly wish I could go back to school myself! My years at Heidelberg were wonderful and stimulating in the fullest sense.”

• • •

During the year of the 50th anniversary of his ‘Berg graduation, Hartsock reflects on lessons which had their genesis at Heidelberg and were revealed through his career. 

There is a quote from a 16th century German mystic, which was burned into Hartsock’s brain the first time he read it in Carl Klopfenstein’s course on the Renaissance and Restoration: “Wherefore my heart is alien to none; be they Turks, papists, sectaries, or Jews. For, in the evening, we will all be called into the Garden and shall sit down together at the Table of the Father.”

It has been a guiding principle of his life, which he summarizes here: “Diseases, social and political problems – none of them pay attention to arbitrary human-drawn lines on maps. The older I get, the more I realize that there really are no degrees of separation. We’re all connected far more closely than we could ever guess, and I’m amazed to learn this again and again. What fascinates me most about dealing with other countries, cultures, even other species of life, is how much we share.”

Read more alumni magazine stories.


By Angela Giles
Published in Summer 19

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