As we look back on COR-NTD 2016, we express our gratitude to one of our own who could not attend: Dr. Vasanthapuram “VK” Kumaraswami, who tragically died in a car accident on March 4, 2016, along with his wife Lakshmi and his mother Kamala. Thanks to VK’s dedication to fighting neglected tropical diseases – which was matched by his patience, his kindness and his “can-do” attitude – the influence he had on the neglected tropical disease community will be felt for many years to come.
VK accomplished much in his professional life. In addition to his posts as Director-in-Charge of what was then called the Tuberculosis Research Center (now the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis) and the National Institute of Epidemiology in Chennai, India, he piloted studies of lymphatic filariasis and elephantiasis in India when research on these topics was scarce.
VK’s passion and dedication helped launch the Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis and propel stakeholders to bolster mass drug administration programs in India and the South-East Asia Region. After retirement, he reached out again to assist at The Task Force for Global Health as the Associate Director of International Programs.
In all stages of his career, VK was known for his positivity. He managed multiple responsibilities with ease. Because of his can-do attitude, VK quickly became the go-to point person for any task: giving a presentation, making modifications to a training program, initiating a clinical research project, or simply “getting things done” in India. In a memorial tribute, Eric Ottesen, who worked with VK on groundbreaking lymphatic filariasis studies, remarked, “There was nothing that he would not do – with a positivity, cheerfulness and selflessness that humbled us all.” This cheerfulness endeared him to patients, policyholders, and researchers alike.
Everyone who met VK noticed his ability maintain a sense of peace in a busy room. They also noticed his sense of humor. One April Fool’s Day he gave an impressive presentation on the fictional disease HIV-3. Many of the professionals in the audience were convinced the disease was real before they checked their calendars and realized the joke.
Peers and junior colleagues learned from VK’s peaceful manner, his smile, and his enthusiasm for life. Lessons on leadership, spearheading effective change, and displaying trust were shared simply by talking or working with him. Katie Zoerhoff of RTI remarked, "He was an incredible human being—such a kind, and gentle soul. I loved working with him. He was such a great teacher, with a remarkable ability to convey information in a simple, understandable and respectful way."
It is that spirit – moving the field forward while moving others with kindness and optimism – that made VK a clear choice for the 2016 Kyelem Prize, given in memory of Dominique Kyelem, another NTD trailblazer gone too soon.
VK was a leader in the best possible sense, one who would give of himself first. His mentorship is fondly remembered, his loss keenly felt, and his care and compassion qualities to be emulated as a most fitting tribute to his legacy.