On Abraham Flexner’s impact, and particularly on his insight into the usefulness of apparently useless knowledge:

Flexner’s Institute for Advanced Study is one of the greatest second acts in educational history. His first major triumph, of which we continue to be the beneficiaries, was the upgrading of medical education through tougher admissions and graduation standards, as well as a dedication to evidence-based teaching and research. Much of today’s medical school curriculum had its origins in the Carnegie Foundation’s 1910 “Flexner Report.” Taking Johns Hopkins (where he had studied classics) as a model, Flexner convinced some of the wealthiest men in America to donate massive sums for the establishment of modern, research-oriented medical schools at Chicago, Columbia, Rochester, and elsewhere. His efforts to transform the training of the nation’s physicians, as much as his founding of the Institute for Advanced Study, inspired the New York Times to say in a 1959 page-one obituary, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.”

Flexner succeeded in setting medical education on a modern scientific course through a powerful blend of knowledge, passion, and, perhaps most importantly, a knack for talking extremely wealthy people into following his lead. He next turned his potent skills toward changing the future itself. Surprisingly, in light of all of his efforts to enhance medical training, Flexner launched the Institute for Advanced Study by diverting a large gift that a wealthy family had planned to use to establish a new medical school. He convinced them instead to found a new sort of institution in Princeton, “a paradise for scholars who . . . have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Flexner’s pitch rested on a brief history of the major advances in science and medicine through the ages. He traced one well-known practical discovery after another back to its foundations in curiosity-driven, fundamental research that seemed, at the time, to have no possible connection with any sort of useful application. When one potential donor held up Marconi’s invention of the radio as the most useful event in modern science, Flexner reminded him that this was an instance of completely “useless” research in electromagnetic waves by Maxwell and Hertz half a century before being “seized upon by a clever technician.” Giants of Western science, from Galileo to Bacon, Newton, and many others, provided yet further evidence for Flexner’s basic insight: “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which . . . ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”