From Medicine Ball Caravan to executive boardroom

Whenever a former denizen of San Francisco’s Summer of Love goes gray and begins wearing a tie to work, the Grateful Dead lyric “What a long, strange trip it’s been” is inevitably invoked.

Such is certainly the case for Larry Brilliant. In 1967, he was in the midst of it all in San Francisco. Now he lives in Mill Valley. Not a long trip — unless, of course, you venture there via Europe and the Middle East in a psychedelically painted bus, spend years in an Indian monastery and years more crisscrossing the Himalayas and Indian subcontinent.

Oh, and, along the way, Brilliant helped to eradicate smallpox in India and co-founded the Seva Foundation, which has kept nearly 3 million Indians and Nepalese from going blind.

Brilliant, a medical doctor with a specialty in epidemiology and currently executive director of Google.org, the Internet giant’s philanthropic arm, will be the keynote speaker for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Business Leadership Breakfast. He’ll speak bright and early at San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

He was born in Detroit in 1944 to immigrant parents of Russian and Ukrainian-Lithuanian Jewish stock; the name “Brilliant” is the Anglicized version of Brilliantov or Brilliantovich or some such moniker. Brilliant, the great-grandson of an Orthodox rabbi, actually found himself being personally kicked out of Sunday school by a rabbi (and perhaps not coincidentally, he was living the life of a Hindu monk within a decade).

“Rabbi Stein asked all the kids to write an essay on ‘could science and religion coexist?’ And 24 kids apparently wrote that, no, it couldn’t. But I wrote of course it could, what greater proof of the existence of God do we have than the beauty of the natural world we have perceived through science?” recalled Brilliant with a chuckle.

“The rabbi angrily called me into his study and said ‘you’re supposed to write that science and religion can’t coexist. Do it over again.’ I said I wouldn’t. And he said if I didn’t, then I was out of there. I was 16 and I figured I’d just saved a lot of Sundays.”

Brilliant later earned his M.D. (though, through a quirk of collegiate enrollment that was possible in the 1960s but certainly not in the present day, he never actually finished his undergraduate degree) and headed to San Francisco for his internship.

“It’s not fair to take a nice Jewish boy from Detroit and set him down in the middle of San Francisco during the Summer of Love,” said Brilliant.

“It was like walking into a Renaissance painting. Love was flowing everywhere and it was quite magical.”

When Native Americans took over Alcatraz in 1969, one of the inhabitants was a heavily pregnant woman. And though, like Butterfly McQueen, Brilliant didn’t know nothin’ about birthing babies, he decided to heed columnist Herb Caen’s call for a doctor to head out to the island and do the job.

“Interns know everything. Everything and nothing,” he joked.

When he set foot on the mainland three weeks later, he nearly lost his hospital job, but his superiors “saved my butt.” And having microphones and cameras stuck in his face soon got him another gig.

He was tapped to play a young doctor administering to the Grateful Dead and other rockers in what turned out to be a “pretty terrible movie” called “Medicine Ball Caravan.” (He took the job based on a promised donation to an Indian health clinic.)

But while the movie was terrible, the two-year journey with young Hollywood types and musicians in a bus across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Nepal changed Brilliant’s life. He lived with his wife (whom he met at a BBYO dance in Detroit) at the monastery for two years before being hired to help lead the World Health Organization’s anti-smallpox campaign in India.

Within eight years, the disease — which had killed 500 million Indians in the first seven decades of the 1900s and maimed or blinded millions more — had been eradicated.

Brilliant says he “can’t choose just one” religion these days, but his Jewish roots are never far behind. He recalls one tense interview with a high-ranking government figure in a remote Indian province. Brilliant was banging his palm on the table and trying to cajole the bureaucrat into doing more to combat smallpox when the phone — one of the few for miles around — rang. The official answered it, smiled and told Brilliant, “It’s your mother.”

“Somehow, she’d gotten me from Fort Lauderdale. She said ‘Nu, you forget you have a mother? Come home!'”

Brilliant’s position at Google allows him the “chance to work on the most important things in the world,” and that’s what he’ll talk about at the Business Leadership Breakfast.

He sadly notes that, even if greenhouse gas emissions were halted tomorrow and the very optimistic climate augmentation of two degrees comes to pass, this will flood cropland throughout the Third World and lead to a boom in the mosquito population.

“We will have malaria in Florida again. One to two billion people will have food insecurity because the crops won’t grow,” he said.

“We will wind up in a world where the poor get sicker and the sick get poorer. We need today to take conscience of that and begin the process of mitigating it.”

For more information about the S.F.-based JCF’s Business Leadership Breakfast, visit www.sfjcf.org or call (415) 777-0411.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a former J. staff writer.