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For decades, Michelson’s grandmother had suffered from syringomyelia, a spinal disease that causes wracking back pain and also pain and insensitivity to temperature in the hands and feet. She simply could not feel the flames licking at her fingers.
Michelson’s grandmother had already visited top syringomyelia experts at the time; her physician had advised her husband that there was nothing to do for her except buy her a wheelchair. Through sheer determination, she continued to walk, even though her back was so crooked she couldn’t stand up straight.
“One day,” she told her grandson, “you’ll become a doctor, and you’ll fix me.”
Sitting in his airy Brentwood home, Michelson tells the story as if the distant memory is still raw. At 67, he is now a retired orthopedic surgeon, prolific medical inventor and a groundbreaking, renowned philanthropist — shaped by what he calls the “nightmare” of his grandmother’s suffering.
After he left home at 17, Michelson did just what his grandmother said, working odd jobs to put himself through Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University), from which he earned his medical degree in 1975. In 1980, he moved west to set up a practice in Los Angeles. There, he developed and patented more than 900 medical procedures and devices that have revolutionized spinal surgery.
In 2004, Michelson prevailed in a licensing lawsuit brought against him by the medical technology megacorporation Medtronic. After the company’s unsuccessful attempt to take the rights to Michelson’s medical inventions, he received a settlement of $1.35 billion, including for the purchase of a majority of the patents related to spinal technology, he said. The money made him one of the richest people in the United States, according to Forbes, and effectively launched his philanthropic career.
In his giving, Michelson continues to focus on medical research, but his reach now extends far beyond orthopedics.
In 2005, he created the Michelson Medical Research Foundation, to which he’s contributed $100 million. The goal, in part, is to develop a vaccine that will cure the estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide who suffer from debilitating parasitic worms.
His 20 Million Minds Foundation seeks to make higher education more effective and inexpensive, including by placing textbooks online for college students who cannot afford them, along with interactive content.
Michelson’s Found Animals Foundation, which runs a website promoting pet adoption and advice on microchips, among other things, is offering $50 million in grant research funds as well as a $25 million prize to scientists who can discover a way to chemically spay and neuter animals with a single, low-cost injection.
And, in 2014, Michelson and his wife, Alya, donated $50 million to the University of Southern California toward the creation of a convergent bioscience center in hopes of producing medical breakthroughs. “We’re going to cure cancer; we’re going to cure heart disease,” he said, ebulliently. “There’s stuff going on there right now that’s going to change the world.”
The center already has achieved a major breakthrough enabling scientists to refine and improve the effectiveness of a tool that can remove any gene in the body and replace it with another.
It’s hardly science for science’s sake. “I have been talking to people for a long time about what I consider the major defect in academic science, which I call heads-down research,” Michelson said. “I [know someone] who’s absolutely brilliant, but he put his face to a microscope 50 years ago, and then when he was old, he stood up and went his own way. How did the world benefit from that? They tell you it’s science for science’s sake, and they’re proud of it. But you’re not helping anybody; nothing’s happening. I almost used an expletive about that. Do something that will help people now, and build on that.”
USC President C.L. Max Nikias said Michelson’s $50 million grant is one of the larger gifts the university has received. “This is a brilliant, brilliant individual who truly believes in making a difference,” Nikias said in a telephone interview. “He really cares about the human condition.”
In conversation, the tall, imposing Michelson is bold, no-nonsense and a natural raconteur, peppering his discourse with references to sources as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, William Somerset Maugham and even “Star Trek.” He sat on a couch in his den with his 10-year-old white whippet, Gracie, cuddled up beside him.
“I rescued her out of this woman’s chicken-wire coop,” he said. Michelson’s other dog, a pit bull named Honey, was discovered bleeding and left to die in the street, with her side slashed and her muzzle taped shut. “And yet she’s the sweetest dog in the world,” he said.
In December, when Michelson was honored by B’nai B’rith International with its distinguished achievement award, he did not speak about himself, but rather lauded the people who run his foundations and showed a videotape his wife had made to celebrate their son’s second birthday. The Michelsons have three children, ages 1 to 6, and live in a home that appears modest by billionaires’ standards. He also still drives a 2000 Chrysler. “People ask, ‘Why don’t you have a Ferrari?’ ” he said. “But I don’t need that. There are people who need to be ‘big’ in the world, or grandiose, and then there are people who don’t. And getting money doesn’t change who you are. You are still whoever you were at the beginning.”