Frank Douglas: The Definition of a Free Man

  • by: Robert Goldberg |
  • 02/12/2019
Not many people are told, at gunpoint no less, by a dictator to take the next flight out of his country and never come back.   Fewer still have replied by asking the dictator to pay for the trip, let alone live to do so.  

But such quiet acts of defiance connect the "Defining Moments of a Free Man From a Black Stream" by Frank Douglas.  Douglas, one of the most highly honored and respected leaders in the pharmaceutical industry, could have written an entire book about his many careers ranging from a physician, a drug development executive, venture capital advisor, biotech CEO and director of two initiatives to accelerate the commercialization of academic life science research and that alone would have been interesting, informative and inspiring.   But the formative experiences, the events that truly defined the life of Frank Douglas, were forged not in corporate boardrooms or high-level meetings but instead in how he chose to act when faced with beatings, homelessness, outright racism, and political intimidation. 

The autobiography opens with a 12 year Frank Douglas being whipped by his mother after being told that he deliberately dumped a week's worth of groceries from his bicycle basket by her emotionally unstable and sadistic sister, Edith.  It wasn't the first time.  Edith took a sick delight in blaming Frank for things he did not do, knowing that it would lead to a beating.  After this incident, Frank decided he had no choice but to kill himself by plunging into the deep waters off the coast of his native Guyana.  

He asked himself how much "hope is there for a boy of twelve when in his own home he cannot defend himself or defend against injustice?"  Ever the rational being, Frank realized that the possibility of jumping and living in pain wasn't worth the effort to commit suicide.  Instead, he "concluded that there had to be a different solution to my dilemma."

He ran to the home of a woman he called "Moms" who is the mother would take to visit every Sunday after church and declared he wanted to live there.  It was then that Moms told Frank that her son was his real father.  The revelation did not devastate him, it made him stronger.  He went home, no longer a victim, and told his mother and aunt Edith he would not be beaten or manipulated again. 

Such defiance was forged from faith and fearlessness in confronting events and forces that appeared to be beyond his control.  Much like Jacob wrestled God from darkness into dawn before receiving the name Israel, Frank Douglas truly earned his name (which literally means a free man from a black stream) by virtue of his willingness to confront malevolent, even violent forces throughout his life.  

Throughout his academic career which took him from a small private school in Guyana to Lehigh University and then to Cornell for a Ph.D. in Chemistry and a medical degree, Douglas faced outright racism.  Others would have endured it or, especially today sought to triumph by being defined as a victim.  Instead, Frank Douglas took on the threats, often without regard to short term consequences, by confronting those who wanted to squash him because he was black. 

If he had acted otherwise, the world would be a lesser place.  His novel approaches to conducting drug discovery and development spread from the companies he worked for and transformed practice throughout the industry.  The hundreds of students and entrepreneurs that sustain medical innovation would be fewer in number and less effective.  And those fortunate enough to have read the book would not have the privilege of being taught an ageless lesson about the human condition:  that our character is not just our destiny, it is the legacy we leave behind.   And as Defining Moments demonstrates, that heritage is shaped by the work of our own hearts and hands and not the faceless, inexorable traverse from past to future. 

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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