Nobel peace prize winner Dr. McGill discusses Doctors Without Borders

Dr. John McGill ’71, President of the United States section of Doctors Without Borders, addressed students, professors, physicians and community members this past Saturday evening in conjunction with the “Whose Responsibility Is It?” project. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), known in the United States as Doctors Without Borders (DWB), is the international medical relief organization that was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize.

McGill’s presentation was entitled, “MSF/DWB – Before and After the Peace Prize.” In addition to describing the organization’s recent accomplishments, McGill presented two videos as part of his lecture. The first video described the form and function of MSF and the second video contained footage of a mission in which he participated in Afghanistan.

MSF was founded in 1971 by a group of French physicians who believed that “all disaster victims, whether the disaster is natural or human in origin, have a right to professional assistance given as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” and that “national boundaries and political circumstances or sympathies must have no influence on who is to receive humanitarian help.”

In addition to providing medical care, the dual mandate to which MSF adheres, and by which it distinguishes itself from other relief organizations, is its commitment to “witness-testifying” to the violations of human rights that they encounter in the field. As a non-governmental, privately funded organization, MSF is able to communicate these atrocities to the world without having political inhibitions. This flexibility allows MSF to enter situations and provide care where other organizations could not gain access.

In 1986, McGill became the first American physician to join MSF and engage in relief work. The footage of his mission portrayed the extreme conditions through which the MSF team had to travel. They clandestinely traversed 500 miles through the Hindu Kush with many Afghanis, 90 donkeys and 11 horses. The journey took 28 days and covered seven mountain passes, five of which were at least 15,000 feet above sea level and two of which were over 18,000 feet.

The goal of this multicultural team that also included a Dutch physician and a French physician and nurses was to re-supply and re-staff MSF clinics that were located within 15 miles of the Russian border. The population was ravaged by the war with the Soviet Union and had no other access to medical care.

McGill also commented on the complete faith that the Afghanis had in the MSF team, noting that the team’s actions were never questioned. Instead they maintained their proud, stoic demeanor in the face of horrible tragedy. Patients were hospitalized as infrequently as possible because they were more vulnerable to attack in the clinics, but when they did require hospitalization, the Afghani families maintained 24 hour a day vigils.

A Vermont native, McGill visited Afghanistan shortly after graduating from Williams, and jumped at the chance to return there when he joined MSF. After traveling the world upon graduation, McGill attended the University of Vermont School of Medicine and went on to complete a residency in emergency medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn., where he is currently a senior associate physician in the emergency department.

In 1990, McGill was invited to join the new Board of Directors when MSF opened the United States section and he was selected as president in 1996.

When asked how students could prepare themselves for experiences in international relief work, McGill expressed how important he felt traveling was to developing a sense of oneself and one’s desire to pursue such work.

He said that by traveling, one can realize his or her commitment to helping others and decide to volunteer his or her time for those in need. Time spent volunteering is not rewarding in the financial sense, but the growth achieved emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually far exceeds many other life experiences.

Over 2000 international MSF personnel, 250 of whom are American, are joined by 15,000 local aid workers in providing what is often the only form of medical care to populations in over 80 countries. Twenty of the countries are considered hostile environments. However, young, American physicians are at a disadvantage to many of their international counterparts in terms of being able to more easily make a commitment to volunteer work because of the debt carried by most students when they finish their medical training, he said.

While McGill noted that often one cannot look to make a career out of volunteer relief work, one can use it to learn a great deal about oneself and the world while helping populations in need. He said, “We cannot exchange cultures, but we can bring away the sense of their cultures.”

Professor Steve Zottoli, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to Williams and Susan Salko of the Health Professions Office sponsored Dr. McGill’s visit.

To learn more about Doctors Without Borders and MSF, please visit their websites at and

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