Honoring decades of compassion and friendships

October 17, 2016 by PATH

PATH’s three cofounders at a rocky stream.

“It’s been a wonderful career. I’m fortunate I met wonderful people. I still keep in touch with them.”—late PATH cofounder and global health leader, Gordon Duncan, PhD. A 1975 photo of PATH cofounders Gordon Duncan (right), Gordon Perkin (lower left), and

Stories from friends and early employees tell the rich and wonderful life of PATH’s recently deceased cofounder, Gordon Duncan, PhD.

In a 2015 interview, Gordon Duncan described his early role as cofounder and first executive director at PATH as the result of a series of lucky events.

There was the phone call from a buddy in the mid ‘70s who convinced him to accept a job in Seattle, sight unseen (“He made it sound very attractive.”). The collaborative friendships with Rich Mahoney and Gordon Perkin, two bright young men who also cared deeply about improving women’s access to family planning options around the world. And the first employees who left thriving careers to join a fledgling organization called PIACT (Program for the Introduction and Adaptation of Contraceptive Technology).

Shortly after he passed away on October 7, stories from Duncan’s friends and colleagues started flowing in. They remembered a man whose work ethic, knowledge, and compassion ran deep. Indeed, as the following statements prove, we were the lucky ones to have been part of Duncan’s life.

Rich Mahoney, PATH cofounder:

“ As in all of life, I believe there were elements of luck and hard work in what happened. [Gordon] Duncan had extensive experience in the private sector with a successful career in research and development at Upjohn working in part on Depo-Provera. He knew industry and what drove the decisions behind which products and markets to pursue. ”
“ Gordon Perkin had worked closely with the design, implementation, and evaluation of international family planning programs and knew what challenges the programs faced and what could most effectively help them. ”
“ I had been lucky enough to help run the contraceptive research and development program at the Ford Foundation, which, at the time, was the largest and most influential program of its kind in the world. ”
“ In 1973, Perkin authored the CIMS (Contraceptive Introduction Manufacture and Supply) memo which was enthusiastically received around the world. The memo assumed that family planning programs would succeed and outlined the major barriers to achieving this success. Perkin challenged the world to find ways to overcome those barriers. After reading the memo, I called Perkin and promised to help. We agreed that we needed Duncan to provide the private-sector knowledge. ”
“ The three of us formed a team and it became clear to us that the world needed an organization that could be a bridge among family planning programs; private industry contraceptive research, manufacture, and supply capabilities; and academic researchers around the world. ”
“ Among his many gifts, Duncan’s essential and invaluable contribution was to force us to think carefully and thoroughly about our ideas. He led us to be clear in our thinking, thorough in our examination of the issues, and believable in our vision. Duncan also had a personal charisma that engendered trust and a willingness of others to follow. ”

Gordon Duncan during a 2015 interview on the importance of PATH’s founding principles and fostering a culture of trust. Video: PATH.

“ After two years of effort, we were lucky enough to get support from the Ford Foundation to launch our idea, and the organization was born. I vividly recall the last question of my Foundation boss, Oscar (Bud) Harkavy, before he approved our initial grant. “Will Gordon Duncan be in this?” When I said, “Yes,” he nodded approvingly. ”

Gordon Perkin, PATH cofounder:

“ Gordon Duncan and I already knew each other from a number of meetings at Battelle while I was still at the Ford Foundation. Rich, Duncan, and I were all interested in the same things—contraceptive research, development, and making the product available—we all just got together from that connection and became friends. ”
“ We knew that there wasn’t an organization that could take new family planning methods from the public sector into developing countries. Duncan really helped develop a model that addressed the gap in the middle position and take new methods and pass them on to people in developing countries for introduction and use. Bud Harkavy at the Ford Foundation gave us a small grant to kick off the venture and that made it possible to create a new entity, which was PIACT. ”
“ We shared a 50-year friendship. And since we also shared the same first name, we had our own way of referring to each other. If I was talking about Duncan, he was “Gordon Number 1.” If he was talking about me, I was “Gordon Number 1.” This was our way of crediting each other as the real “Gordon Number 1. ”
“ Duncan did so many things well, and yet he was always humble. He could fly a helicopter, he could skipper a 70-foot boat, and he invented and held patents on several formulations and technologies. ”

Gordon Duncan on developing family planning technologies for the betterment of the health and well-being of women. Video: PATH.

Peggy Morrow, PATH’s first full-time employee and China program lead:

“ The three founders, Rich Mahoney, Gordon Duncan, and Gordon Perkin, had a shared vision and were very collaborative, which was instrumental in driving the organization to innovate and to take risks. ”
“ Gordon Duncan found and recruited most of the early staff. He convinced Michael Free to move up from California, and persuaded me to move across the country from Chapel Hill. Many of the early staff were hired to work on publications defining standards for modern safe and effective contraceptives for decision-makers in developing countries. Concurrently, he identified staff to develop pictorial materials showing risks and benefits of contraceptives for non- or low-literate users. ”
“ When Gordon Perkin was approached by the UN in early 1979 to assist the Chinese in producing safer and more effective contraceptives, Gordon Duncan asked the right questions, realized the importance of this unanticipated request, and immediately “The Gordons” began calling friends in the private sector to help arrange meetings for the Chinese with most of the major western manufacturers in North America and Europe. Those initial visits led to a 15-year collaboration between PATH and the Chinese State Pharmaceutical Administration. ”

Michael Free, senior advisor emeritus at PATH:

“ My association with Gordon Duncan precedes PIACT/PATH by several years, when in 1972 he recruited me to join Battelle Northwest and launch a technology development program on family planning products for resource-poor and underserved populations. Gordon was the executive codirector of the Population Study Center, one of the Battelle Human Affairs Study Centers headquartered in Seattle. ”
“ A few years later, I was privileged to be party to the conversations between Gordon and Gordon Perkin and Richard Mahoney when they conceived the idea of a bridging organization that could forge partnerships between the public and private sectors to solve the intractable problems in global health. Gordon was the first CEO of PIACT (soon to become PATH). ”
“ Since Gordon launched and propelled me on what turned out to be a 40-year fulfilling career, I have an enormous debt of gratitude for him. He crafted and nurtured a culture of mutual trust, collaboration, and empowerment at all levels. Gordon’s great leadership attribute was the art of asking the right question, a gentle, penetrating, and empowering strategy that drove the quest for meaningful answers as well as real results—for which he would take no credit. ”
“ In his professional role as well as his recreational activities in the air as a pilot or as a skipper under sail, Gordon was the fearless teacher, open to others taking the helm, always ready to step in, quietly but firmly, only after the error was clear, the lesson truly learned. With Gordon, you felt very safe in troubled waters. ”
“ Gordon’s contributions to global health, mostly unheralded, are manifold and manifest mostly through others whom he coached, coaxed, channeled, and challenged. The overall impact is tremendous. I salute him for a life well-lived and for his great role in the direction of my life. ”

Vivien Tsu, associate director in the Reproductive Health Program and the director of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Program at PATH:

“ Although Gordon had moved back to work in the pharmaceutical industry by the time I joined PATH, his influence in the organization he cofounded continued to be felt for decades. He stayed involved and continued to offer sage advice and warm encouragement on his many return visits to PATH. ”

Dr. Chris Elias, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (formerly PATH CEO and president):

“ There are many new ideas in global development, but a few timeless ones keep coming back to the fore including trusting one’s instinct, encouraging entrepreneurship with all its messiness and failure, and listening to the actual needs of real people in real places. Gordon and the other cofounders started PATH 40 years ago with that vision and the results have been amazing. ”

Eric Walker, formerly chief financial officer at PATH:

“ Gordon was on PATH’s board in the early years and was the keeper of the commercial flame, always pointing the way for working with the private sector to help PATH reach its mission. ”