For 30 years Dr. Polak, a 78-year-old former psychiatrist, has focused on creating devices that will improve the lives of 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day. But, he insists, they must be so cheap and effective that the poor will actually buy them, since charity disappears when donors find new causes.
Inventing a new device is only the beginning, he says; the harder part is finding dependable manufacturers and creating profitable distributorships. The “appropriate technology” field, he argues, is “dominated by tinkerers and short of entrepreneurs.”
His greatest success has been a treadle pump that lets farmers raise groundwater in the dry season, when crops fetch more money. He has sold more than two million, he said.
He also helped develop a $25 artificial knee and a $400 hospital lamp to save newborns with life-threatening jaundice. He is field-testing a reprogrammable “talking poster” that gives mini-lectures in local languages, with pictures, on topics as varied as rice-planting and hand-washing. And he has an ambitious project to create franchises through which Indian village shopkeepers will purify polluted water and sell it. We spoke at a convention of young inventors in Arlington, Va.; what follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Q. What in your past led you into this unusual specialty?
A. My dad comes from a peasant background in Czechoslovakia; he lived in a house with the people upstairs and animals downstairs, so I have an innate affinity for peasants. Also, we were Jewish, and in 1938 refugees were streaming across the border from Germany with broken heads.
Pretty much anybody could see what was coming. My dad said, “There’s going to be hell to pay soon,” and made plans to escape. But when he tried to tell our family and friends, they said things like “But what would we do with the furniture?” I got from him an eye for seeing the obvious.
He also had an entrepreneur’s streak, which I inherited. He had a high school education, but he started a plant nursery and was doing very well. He sold everything at 10 cents on the dollar, and we escaped to Canada.
I went to medical school, got a degree in psychiatry, and in 1959 I moved to Denver and got a job at Fort Logan Mental Health Center. In my spare time, I invested in real estate. I bought mismanaged apartment buildings. I also owned a small oil company drilling stripper wells. I invented a pump jack for the oilfield industry — I’ve always knocked around in that kind of stuff. By 1981, I’d worked for 22 years as a psychiatrist, and I’d cleared about three million bucks, mostly in real estate.
Q. What got you interested in poverty?
A. I was one of the pioneers in treating people more effectively in real-life settings. The conventional assumption is that patients are admitted to psychiatric institutions because a therapist or family member says they’re mentally ill. But I talked to a lot of our patients as if they were customers, and they defined something going on in their family or workplace as the primary reason they were there. So I started going into patients’ homes or workplaces.
At the time, there was a lot of emphasis on making the wards a lot more like a family. I came to the astonishing conclusion that the most familylike setting was a family. So we recruited nine healthy private families and admitted acutely ill patients to them.
It was much more effective. If you’re a guest in somebody’s nice home, you ain’t going to break the furniture. We provided the support — the physicals, the lab tests, rapid tranquilization. But the deinstitutionalization model that followed that dumped people out with no follow-up was in some cases worse than being institutionalized.
I also noticed that a lot of these people were very poor, and that had a big impact on their symptoms. That got me interested in poverty.
Q. And in third-world poverty?
A. My wife’s a Mennonite, and they had programs in Bangladesh. It had hit me between the eyes that homeless people in Denver were living on $500 a month, but there were people overseas living on $30 a month. So I took a trip to Bangladesh.
Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/health/27conversation.html