Irving Fish (MD’64)

Aurum Awards 2021: Irving Fish (MD’64)

By Mark Campbell | Photos provided

For years, Irving Fish (MD’64) helped remove barriers to academic excellence among his patients as director of Pediatric Neurology at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. But it was a resident he mentored from Ethiopia, Tesfaye Zelleke, who opened his eyes to other ways to make a difference.

“He chose poverty in Ethiopia as his research project,” recalls Dr. Fish, who is now retired. “It is well known that the best way out of poverty is education. But as we began to look at education there, we noted that, traditionally, 25 per cent of students dropped out of school by the end of the first grade, and more than 50 per cent dropped out by the end of fifth grade. We thought that if we could give disadvantaged children the tools they needed to succeed before starting school, they could do as well as any other students.”

Joined by his wife, Ilene, a lawyer, Menelik Desta, one of Ethiopia’s most prominent psychiatrists, and community representatives in Ethiopia, Dr. Fish and Dr. Zelleke launched the Ethiopian School Readiness Initiative (ESRI) in 2007. Initially run under the umbrella of NYU Langone Medical Center, the comprehensive non-profit program is now an independent organization. The program gives disadvantaged children ages three to six opportunities to thrive academically. Families that participate in the program have access to early education, health care, and monthly parent education sessions led by Dr. Desta.

“We have educated more than 65,000 children over the past 13 years,” Dr. Fish says. “Over 60 per cent of our children can read by the time they get to school, which is probably our greatest accomplishment. Our second biggest accomplishment is that some of our kids are now in college.” Dr. Fish adds that ESRI works in partnership with local and federal education authorities to ensure its long-term sustainability and has given local populations a stake in its operation and success.

Ripple effect

The initiative has had other far-reaching impacts in Ethiopia. Monthly parent education sessions have helped reduce the prevalence of corporal punishment among participating families. It has also addressed poverty and gender inequality by providing financial and vocational training, as well as start-up funding, to mothers.

“Teachers tell us that they know whose mothers are in business because the children are more confident, more socially adept, and learn better. There is a women’s moiety—a family moiety—to this program as well,” Dr. Fish says.

An aspirational pursuit

Much to Dr. Fish’s delight, the initiative and its impacts have earned him an Aurum Award. More than 60 years on, the instruction he received at Dalhousie continues to inspire him to make a difference. “My professors taught me that I had a responsibility to serve the public and gave me the tools to help people to the best of my ability,” he says. “I am very happy that the institution that gave me this gift is proud of how I have used it. I am thankful to be chosen for this award.”

Dr. Fish is now using the inspiration and education Dalhousie gave him to grow ESRI so that it has a presence across Ethiopia. “We have opened 87 schools in regions where 75 per cent of the population resides,” says Dr. Fish, who celebrated his 83rd birthday in May. “It is my aspiration that eventually all the children in these regions will have access to preschool. It is also our aspiration to extend our preschool presence so that we are in regions where 95 per cent of the population lives. Our work won’t be done until every child has access, which likely will be long after I’m gone. But I will continue to do whatever I can to achieve that goal.”


Read next: more 2021 Aurum Awards stories