Committed to Changing the World: The Global Legacy of Tachi Yamada
Joseph C. Kolars
Director, Center for Global Health Equity
Tachi Yamada quite literally changed the world. It is easy to look at the current pandemic and so many other infectious disease trajectories and think we are behind the curve. And perhaps we are in many ways.
But in the last 20 years, through the development and deployment of new drugs—and through a seismic transformation in the pharmaceutical industry—health systems around the world have new tools in the fight against malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and other diseases that make millions of people sick every year.
And Tachi was at the center of much of that.
A Question and a Challenge
Tachi liked to ask a simple question that demands we consider the very future of human health.
Why should our health be so deeply influenced by where we’re born?
Tachi was passionate about equity, so much so that our Center here at the University of Michigan is not a Center for global health but a Center for global health equity. This comes from the recognition that our health is greatly influenced by the circumstances into which we were born—local economic resources, environment quality, access to education, access to healthcare.
Out of our control, apart from any decisions we make as individuals, our health outcomes from an early age and even before we’re born can be profoundly different based solely on our location.
Tachi began his career in academia and thought this should be an area of scholarship. He thought universities should be dedicated to conducting research that helps reduce gaps in health. He thought we should pay close attention to how we conduct research so that our approaches themselves supported the growth and expansion of health for everyone.
Tachi was particularly passionate about the health of individuals and communities in low- and middle-income countries, where health challenges are remarkably complex and demand interdisciplinary solutions.
Tachi was always looking for the best in people and for the positive aspects of any challenging situation. Instead of writing off academia as an antiquated enterprise that couldn’t adapt, he insisted that it get better. Instead of getting hung up on academia’s focus on traditional research metrics, he saw the tremendous potential for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Not every academic thinks and works outside their own discipline. But every university campus is a physical representation of the breadth of human knowledge, with experts in the arts, sciences, business, engineering, and medicine all sharing the same space.
Tachi modeled this in the broad arc of his own career, giving everything he had as a physician, academic, business leader, and nonprofit executive. But he always leaned into this positive aspect of academia—its unique ability to be truly interdisciplinary. Throughout his life he recognized the many ways a university is uniquely positioned to take on global health challenges, and he continued to look for ways to incentivize academics to partner across disciplines and across borders in new and creative ways.
A committed academic. As a scholar, Tachi was known not only for his wisdom, talent, and passion but for his prolific knowledge of the areas he was managing. He spent hours every day reading, ensuring he was well versed in the exigencies of the situation.
An unparalleled mentor. Tachi had the ability to truly understand how somebody was thinking, what their inner values were even if they weren’t being expressed. And he had the ability, then, to show somebody where they could be, what they could become.
Tachi believed that everyone has gifts to offer, everyone has something to bring to the table. I watched him time and again prioritize the development of others, helping countless individuals pursue careers in a diversity of fields.
His ability to lift those around him to unimagined heights stands at the heart of his legacy. And this applies not only to individuals but to entire institutions and industries.
An undaunted advocate. Tachi quietly changed the face of the global pharmaceutical industry.
As a newly appointed director in the upper echelons of a leading drug conglomerate, Tachi learned that his was one of 39 companies suing Nelson Mandela and the government of South Africa for their handling of HIV drug prices. Tachi thought this was unconscionable and began leading thoughtful, constructive conversations at multiple levels of the organization to find solutions that would give people access to medicine they needed.
Tachi’s understated courage garnered him the attention of the Gates Foundation, where he took on a leading position in their global health initiatives. At the time, global health was still being defined in a fundamental way, and the institutions involved ranged from local health leaders to educational institutions to national governments to multinational corporations.
In his new role, Tachi again saw problems as opportunities. He focused his efforts on understanding how all of the entities do and could work together, and how they might improve their communication and alignment around urgent health needs. He pioneered efforts in vaccine development and disease eradication, initiatives he knew could be remarkably cost-effective and health-effective when all components of the system worked together.
And Tachi emphasized education in low-income countries. He knew that—beyond technical solutions like new drugs and delivery systems—we had to think about the healthcare workforce. He recruited me to be a partner here, supporting the advancement of healthcare training and capacity in these settings.
A committed philanthropist. Tachi was a practical visionary, able to perceive both novel possibilities and the practical steps required to achieve them.
At a moment in time when so many in academia—including students—had a deep hunger to serve others and a desire to ensure their work is relevant, Tachi again sought to draw out the best in all of us. He envisioned academia as playing a significant role in global health. And with that vision, Tachi and Leslie have positioned the entire University of Michigan to succeed.
Tachi and Leslie’s generous gift to create the Center for Global Health Equity is a continuation of their commitment to imagine and enable big solutions.
The Center is working not only to advance health research and other initiatives but to constantly evaluate how we are doing that work. Our paradigm is to ensure our work in co-designed research and student engagement will lead to deep impact. We assume bidirectional learning in all we do, knowing we have just as much to learn from partners in other communities as they might from us.
We remain committed to the word equity in our Center’s name. As we remember and honor Tachi, we will have the highest, most sincere commitment to collaborating in new ways—ways that serve our partners first, ways that imagine a better future and the steps that will take us toward it.