Two of Washington state's most storied citizens have been honored with the nation's highest civilian honor.
They displayed courage and creativity in crisis — one refusing to accept a horrifically unjust imprisonment, the other unleashing a medical strategy that helped save millions of lives.
On Wednesday, two of Washington state’s most storied citizens were honored with the nation’s highest civilian award.
William Foege, the Vashon Island physician and epidemiologist who came up with a vaccination plan that ultimately rid the world of small pox; and Gordon Hirabayashi, a Seattle sociologist and Japanese American who refused to be sent to an internment camp during World War II without first waging a legal war of his own, were both awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The announcement comes three months after Hirabayashi’s death in Edmonton, Canada, at age 93.
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Eleven others, including astronaut John Glenn and rock legend Bob Dylan, also will receive the medal in a White House ceremony later this spring.
“These extraordinary honorees come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our nation,” President Obama said in a statement.
“They’ve challenged us, they’ve inspired us and they’ve made the world a better place.”
In the late 1960s, global-health experts presumed their best shot at eradicating smallpox was to try to immunize everyone.
Foege, who had gone to Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington, found himself administering vaccines as a medical missionary in Nigeria when he and his colleagues began to run out of doses.
He responded by finding infected people and, through interviews, photos of those with the disease, even by offering rewards, immunizing anyone who may have been in contact with them.
During a 2001 interview with The Seattle Times, Foege recalled urging the chief of a remote village to quickly gather people for vaccinations, which he did by having a drummer pound out a message. When Foege, who was 6-foot-7, asked the chief what message got people to come so quickly, the chief said, “I told the drummer to say, ‘Come to the village to see the tallest man in the world.’ “
The immunization strategy became known as “surveillance and containment” and was the key to eradicating the often-deadly disease. Smallpox remains the only infectious disease so far to have been completely wiped out.
“In one week in May 1974, in the state of Bihar, India, we discovered 11,000 new cases of smallpox and responded effectively to it,” Foege said in 2001.
Foege went on to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and remains a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.
Hirabayashi was born in Seattle. He was a UW student during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and later declined to board a bus to an internment camp.
He was a second-generation Japanese American and a U.S. citizen and knew he had constitutional rights.
“I wasn’t a rebel looking for a cause,” he was quoted saying in a UW newsletter in 2000. “In fact, I was preparing to go. But in the days before I was supposed to leave, I realized that I couldn’t do it.”
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he filed suit in federal court, but lost based on a military executive order that declared Japanese Americans a threat. Hirabayashi surrendered to the FBI and spent 90 days in prison.
The decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the conviction was overturned by a federal court, which said the U.S. internment policy had been based on expediency — not on national security.
In 2011, six months before Hirabayashi’s death, the U.S. revealed that during World War II, the U.S. Solicitor General had hidden from the federal court system an Office of Naval Intelligence report that concluded Japanese Americans posed no military threat at all.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com. On Twitter @craigawelch. Material from Seattle Times archives was included in this report.