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Head and Neck Surgeon's Medical Contributions Started as a Child

Dr. Joseph CalifanoDr. Joseph Califano

Joseph Califano loved candy as a child. He still has memories of going to the White House with his dad, an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, on weekends and getting sweets from the president in the Oval Office.

But he has no memory of the time when what looked like candy almost killed him—he was only 2 years old. Forty eight years later, all Americans still feel the effect.

The “candy” was the “absolutely delicious” orange-flavored children’s aspirin in a bottle easily opened by toddlers. He quickly overdosed. His father rushed him to the hospital, his stomach was pumped and he lived.

His father, Joe, was furious that a toddler could be in such danger because of an easily opened bottle of pills. Distraught by the event and the potential loss of a child of one of his aides, President Johnson quickly took action.  His efforts led to the passage and signing of The Child Safety Act of 1966, which included provisions to ensure that medications were dispensed in childproof bottles.

Decades later, Joseph, now a head and neck surgeon in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, reflects on his impact on patient safety.

“Despite all of the medical school training, being a full professor and all of the manuscripts I’ve published, that’s probably one of my most significant indirect contributions to American medicine,” Califano says with a laugh.

Not to be outdone by his actions as a toddler, Joseph continued his impact on medicine on his 11th birthday. When his father asked what he wanted for his birthday, Joseph said he wanted his father, a three-pack-a-day smoker, to quit.

 His father obliged.

A few years later, as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), Joe, now a former smoker, led a very aggressive—“even obnoxious,” Joseph recalls—antismoking campaign. Joseph estimates that the department’s smoking cessation efforts saved about 30,000 lives per year.

Looking back on his lifesaving exploits as a child, Joseph says these events helped to guide him down the path to becoming a doctor.

“We have a family history of helping people,” he says. “Your impact on the world can be unintended yet powerful.”