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Vivek H. Murthy ’98 isn’t quite sure what he’ll do next.
“I’ve never been great about seeing too far into the future for myself. I have found, actually, that as time goes on, I tend to think more and more short term,” he said.
Right now, though, Murthy has more than enough on his plate. His resume features numerous board positions, nonprofit and business ventures, and a bestselling book. A father of two, Murthy now serves as surgeon general of the United States — the youngest person ever to be confirmed to the position and the first of Indian descent.
Murthy looks back at his studies at Harvard — as a summer school student, undergraduate, and medical resident — as periods of formative exploration, interpersonal bonding, and personal development.
Murthy, the child of Indian immigrants, first experienced Harvard as a high school student when he attended Harvard Summer School with his sister. According to Murthy, the school left him with a glowing impression.
“I had a really wonderful time there,” Murthy said.
Gerald B. Pier, one of Murthy’s summer school professors and later mentor, remembers the young student leaving an impression on him as well.
“As I recall, he as a high school student scored the highest scores on the tests in the class,” Pier said. “That was pretty impressive given that there were plenty of Harvard upper division and graduate students who also took the class.”
A Quincy House resident, Murthy said the transition from his public high school in Miami, Florida, to the College left him feeling “very inadequate” at many times.
Though he had always imagined himself pursuing medicine, Murthy said he began to seriously consider history, economics, and literature when he came to Harvard. He was ultimately called back to medicine through VISIONS Worldwide, a nonprofit organization focused on HIV/AIDS education that he co-founded with his sister during his freshman year.
Murthy’s friends say he was as studious as he was kind, which set him apart from his peers.
“Harvard kids can be super cerebral but sometimes lacking in emotional intelligence,” wrote friend and classmate Sewell Chan ’98. “That wasn’t Vivek — he was a brilliant student but also someone whose compassion and kindness stood out.”
“I was always impressed by how persistent he could be, working for so many hours in a row,” said Akilesh “Akil” Palanisamy ’98, Murthy’s friend and roommate. “At the same time, he was always willing to have a conversation. If I wanted to talk to him about something, then he would stop what he was doing and then sometimes those conversations would go on for hours.”
Murthy graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in biochemical sciences before earning his MD and MBA from Yale in 2003.
Murthy said it was “incredible” to return to Boston for his internal medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in 2003.
“I came to work every day feeling like I was coming to see friends,” Murthy said. “We stood by each other during some of our darkest hours and we celebrated together.”
In 2007, Murthy co-founded TrialNetworks, which aimed to optimize the quality and efficiency of clinical trials. Two years later, he co-founded Doctors for America, a nonprofit advocating for improved health care policy.
Barack Obama appointed Murthy to serve on the Presidential Advisory Council on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health in 2011. The next year, he co-chaired the health care advisory committee for Obama’s reelection campaign.
Staying true to his lack of a plan, Murthy said he let his passions steer him through these endeavors.
“None of them were really the result of a lot of pre-planning or some five-year strategic plan,” Murthy said. “They were the result of feeling inspiration in the moment and then taking a leap and pursuing it.”
Murthy’s wife, on the other hand, knew exactly what was in store for him. Alice Chen recalled being unsurprised when Murthy texted her to say he had received a message from the White House in summer 2013.
“I picked up the phone and I said, ‘They just asked you to be surgeon general, didn’t they?’’” Chen said. “I just knew.”
Despite serving as the nation’s doctor, Chen said Murthy still makes the time to be the “best dad.”
“Even though he has this really important position, he comes home for dinner,” Chen said. “He’s there for the kids and for me and for the rest of the family in ways that are really special.”
Looking ahead, Murthy said he hopes his family can give back to the world.
“As I get older, I realized that what I really want for myself and my kids when they grow up is I want them to be deeply fulfilled. I want them to contribute to the world in some way,” Murthy said.
After authoring a book on the power of human connection, Murthy is quick to highlight social bonding as a top priority.
“I come back to this 25th reunion, if anything, wishing that I had spent more time with people — building friendships, getting to know my classmates,” Murthy said.
“Even though it’s been 25 years, I’m hoping to make up for some lost time,” he added.
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