How Barefoot Teen Steve Jobs Helped Cure 3 Million Blind People

Dr. Brilliant in Kathmandu in 1980 saving lives with Steve Jobs' donated Apple II
Dr. Brilliant in Kathmandu in 1980 saving lives with Steve Jobs' donated Apple II
 

Steve Jobs' friend Dr. Larry Brilliant is former executive director of Google.org, an epidemiologist, Senior Science Advisor to the Warner Bros. and Participant movie Contagion, and current president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund established by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll. Here is how he remembers Jobs:

I met Steve when we were all young and the world was full of promise and so, of course, we went to India as spiritual seekers.  We had our first brief meeting when he was probably 19 or 20 in the 1970's, probably around 1974.

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I had been living in the monastery or ashram of Maharaji or Neem Karoli Baba in the Himalayas, but by the time Steve got to India I was working for the United Nations on the smallpox eradication program. By then, I had morphed from being a hippie to wearing a three-piece suit and going to UN meetings.

Steve was still barefoot wearing robes and head-shaven.  Maharaji was a great Indian saint who had passed away only months before Steve arrived. He had an ashram at a place called Kenchi in the lower Himalayas. I would come up on weekends from Delhi. Steve rented a small "Kumoan" hillside cabin about 200 yards away. He would come and get tea and food at the ashram. He was traveling with this wonderful guy named Dan Kottke, who eventually became the first or second employee of Apple. Steve had two pictures of Maharaji in his room when he died.

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Steve had always been into mechanical things and, as he said in his Stanford commencement speech, at Reed he learned calligraphy and fonts and they combined into this unique combination of practical engineering with a profound aesthetic sensibility. I think one of the ways India influenced him was as he trekked around he came face-to-face with India's huge duality. He encountered both very holy men, and at the same time, terrible intractable poverty, suffering on a scale unimaginable at home in California.

He also talked to people who had big phantasmagorical solutions to those problems that were monumentally impractical. I think being in India helped make him be committed to finding practical solutions -- less about theories, more about practice.

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Steve wanted to give power to the people.  He talked about it all the time in the early days of Apple.  But it was one thing to talk about it in the rhetoric of the 60's, another to disinter-mediate the priests, the elitists who controlled the mainframe computers. To take away their power and put on the desk --- and later the lap, and in the hands --- of everyone.

The Apple II and the Mac put power on the desks of the people, reduced our dependency on the priests of the mainframe, and then Steve topped that by putting that same power on our laps, our phones, our pads. He was consistently democratizing computing power.

When we were both back in the U.S., a Swiss investor gave Steve some very early angel money to start Apple and the same man gave me about the same amount to help start the Seva Foundation, combating blindness. Apple's success is, of course, the stuff of legends but Seva hasn’t done badly either. Its projects have given back sight to more than 3 million blind people.

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When Steve heard I was starting Seva in 1980, he called me up and gave me the first sizable donation to help build eye hospitals in India and do a survey of blindness in Nepal. We couldn’t have built Seva without him.  He was an advisor for years. He stayed involved even as Apple took all of his time; for example, when I went to Nepal to do a nationwide survey of blindness, I had no way of analyzing the data in country and it was inappropriate to try to bring it back to the University of Michigan where I was professor.

Steve called me and said he was going to send me an Apple II with VisiCalc software to do the first round of epidemiological study in Nepal.  He was very interested in how we could use that data to build a program.  He sent us a very early Apple II, probably single digits in the serial number. He said, “I've got an Apple in my room I'm going to send you with this amazing thing called a Corvus hard drive. It’s got tremendous capacity. It’s all the most capacity in the market. It’s 5 megs.”

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Two days later I got the Apple and it was perfect. It’s still there in Nepal. It was Steve thinking about how to solve my problem trying the help us create a program to give back sight to blind people and that was how he did things.

For 35 years, I've seen Steve’s sweet caring nature. I know this was not everyone’s experience, but it was mine. He was devoted to Apple and he was really devoted to his family and especially his amazing wife Laurene and his kids.  He said over and over, I'm proud of Apple but Laurene and my great kids are worth 10,000 times more than any company.

Whether he learned it in India through his spiritual striving or from having a family, Steve’s values were elevating. They are not the values of the divisiveness of 2011. His views were from a different era and they were noble.

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