An Antidote to the Cult of Trump in the Story of an Immigrant Scientist

Jan Vilcek | Donald Trump

People were skeptical last summer when real estate tycoon and sometimes-television personality Donald Trump announced he would run for president. The established wisdom was he wouldn’t have a chance with voters, and that his candidacy might be no more than a political stunt. Now, with several primaries behind him and a 50-plus delegate lead over both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, it is clear that the time for skepticism is over: We could be looking at a Trump presidency.

At least some of his followers have flocked to Trump because of his ultraconservative stance on immigration. His promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico has been flanked with outrageous statements about immigrants, among them the assertion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, and Muslims should not be allowed into the country.

It’s impossible to say how a Trump win would affect American immigration, but if we close our doors it could do serious and long-lasting damage to America’s intellectual and creative culture. Some of the nation’s greatest scientists and artists have been immigrants: a fact that is very easy to lose sight of in the hysteria and bluster.

Ensuring that the contributions of immigrants are not forgotten is one of the primary goals of the Vilcek Foundation, a non-profit organization based in New York City. Each year, the foundation awards several prizes recognizing outstanding contributions in the arts and sciences made by foreign-born, permanent residents of the United States.

Novelists Téa Olbreht (The Tiger’s Wife) and Dinaw Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears) are both recipients of Vilcek Foundation prizes, as are musician Yo-Yo Ma, The “Bird Cage” director Mike Nichols, cancer researcher Titia de Lange, and geneticist and science educator Pardis Sabeti.

The foundation is the creation of virologist Jan Vilcek, whose work led to the creation of Remicade, the first in a new class of medication found to be effective in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, certain kinds of arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders. The drug was approved in 1998, and by 2013, it was the second-highest selling drug in the world.

Vilcek has received millions of dollars in royalties from Remicade sales, a good portion of which he has dedicated to funding the foundation. It’s more than just a philanthropic gesture, though: Vilcek is an immigrant, himself. He, along with his wife Marica, defected to America from the former Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1964.

Outlined in his recently published memoir, Love and Science, Vilcek was born to a comfortable middle-class Jewish family in 1933. Neither of his parents were particularly religious, but when Nazi Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, the family was moved to a ghetto. Fearful that young Jan would be taken from them, his parents hid him in a Catholic orphanage until they were able to flee to the countryside.

After the war, Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite state. In the state-run medical school where Vilcek later trained, scientific theories accepted as fact in the rest of the world were considered “western decadence” and rejected in favor of Soviet pseudoscience.

Despite these limitations, Vilcek managed to build a reputation as a promising young virologist, and his research brought the attention of the world’s scientific community. Unfortunately, this in turn brought the attention of the secret police.

Too many close calls with aggressive government agents prompted Vilcek and his wife to escape while on a state-approved trip out of the country. A position at New York University gave Vilcek the opportunity to start his research anew, and once he was empowered to go where his research took him, Vilcek and his colleagues made scientific history.

Vilcek’s research created a medication that helps millions of people, funds his foundation, and supports continued scientific research at New York University. It is unlikely that Vilcek could have achieved the same kind of success had he been unable to find sanctuary in the United States, and the world would have suffered for it. Had xenophobia guided our nation’s principles, Vilcek would have been forced to return home to face certain imprisonment and maybe even death. After all, this was the Cold War, Vilcek was a refugee, and Czechoslovakia was a Warsaw Pact nation.

The United States could be deprived of the next Vilcek should we close our gates. Even worse, he or she might find refuge with our enemies instead. Is it worth it?