I have just read an absolutely amazing story. It’s the obituary of an Italian World Bank economist who simply would not accept the death verdict of his son from the medical establishment.
Augusto Odone was working for the World Bank in Washington in the 1980’s when his six-year-old son began to stumble, mumble, and was turning deaf. The doctors said he was suffering from a rare and terrible disease called ALD for short, and that there was no cure. Put simply, fatty acids were destroying the myelin sheath that insulates the nervous system. The doctors told him and his wife to go home and wait for their son to die, mute, blind, and paralyzed.
Odone was an economist, not a chemist, a biologist, or medical doctor. But he was a cook, and he began to read voraciously to understand what was happening to his son. A mix of olive and rape seed (canola) oil, he finally reasoned, should counteract the corrosive acid attack. The doctors laughed. The researchers poured scorn on this ridiculous crank.
But Odone was right. His oil halted the further development of ALDs symptoms. Unfortunately, although the oil could stop further corrosion, it could not reverse the terrible damage already done to Lorenzo,who lived immobile and unable to communicate until the age of 30. Yet, although Lorenzo’s Oil could help keep other children from the devastating impact of the disease, the medical profession continued to evaluate the treatment as akin to snake oil.
Odone refused to concede defeat. Scientists wouldn’t listen, but Hollywood did, and in 1992 “Lorenzo’s Oil.” was made into a movie. It did exaggerate the good news, implying that Lorenzo had recovered, which he had not. The oil had merely prevented further deterioration. But researchers at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute of Baltimore decided to take the treatment seriously.
8 years ago, their study showed that Lorenzo’s Oil prevented the ongoing development of ALD symptoms in three-quarters of the cases studied.
I’m going to remember this story for those many days when the future of the human race looks so hopeless. When it looks as if our greed or ignorance or simply inertia will kill us, I’m going to remember this astonishing man.
Adone’s obituary is written by his son-in-law who is the International Editor of the Economist.