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Vital Signs

$5-million gift will go toward constructing LeBaron Commons

If one were to ask Dean Le-Baron to "think outside the box," he would probably throw away the box.

Unconventional thinking is what made LeBaron successful in his career as an investment futurist—someone who is always trying to look around the corner to identify the "next big thing." It's also what inspired him to donate $5 million to Dartmouth Medical School to establish the LeBaron Commons. The Commons, which is being named in honor of LeBaron's father, Francis E. LeBaron, D.O., M.D., will connect the Robert and Naomi Borwell Research Building on DHMC's Lebanon campus to future research facilities there, providing a physical context for formal and informal contact among researchers.

Quest: LeBaron's father, a 1931 graduate of the Massachusetts College of Osteopathy and a 1934 graduate of the Middlesex College of Medicine and Surgery, was a self-taught researcher whose quest for new frontiers made him a lifelong student. For example, he learned statistics so he could conduct back-therapy studies that demonstrated the ef- ficacy of returning troops to combat, chemistry in an attempt to develop nicotineless tobacco, and preventive medicine in order to push industry to focus on risk reduction.

Dr. LeBaron also loved his relationships with his patients. To him, medicine was "very much like continually solving detective stories," recalls his son. "You have a series of ingredients and clues as to what a diagnosis is and pursue some science and a little bit of art and come out with an answer that is hopefully helpful."

Dean LeBaron seems to have inherited his father's drive for innovation. In 1969, he founded Batterymarch, a highly unconventional investment firm that was one of the first to enter the security markets of Brazil, India, Russia, China, and other countries that were not yet favorites among U.S. investors. Batterymarch was also a leader in applying computer technology to financial modeling, trading, and investing.

Part of Batterymarch's success was due to its egalitarian structure, maintains LeBaron. None of his 30-plus employees had an individual office, no one had a job title, and everyone took turns cleaning the kitchen. Yet the staff was highly productive. "We did the amount of business it would take normal companies about 300 people to do," says LeBaron, explaining that he'd often move his desk if somebody was doing something that he found interesting: "I'd work with them, if they wanted me."

Meet: While it's unlikely that DMS will start tearing down office walls and stripping professors of their titles, it's the cross-disciplinary collaboration and lack of departmental fiefdoms at DMS and DHMC that inspired LeBaron's generosity. "That's one of the reasons why I am especially attracted to the notion of the LeBaron Commons," he says, "because that is the place where people will meet and exchange ideas"—with the ultimate goal of such interactions being to hasten the transformation of scientific discoveries into patient care.

Another reason behind his gift is care he received at DHMC late one night a few years ago. LeBaron, a half-time resident of New London, N.H., had lost vision in one eye. He received a prompt diagnosis at DHMC and —under the care of ophthalmologist Christopher Chapman, M.D., and internist Jay Buckey, M.D., the latter a former astronaut and medical director of hyperbaric medicine at DHMC—agreed to try an experimental treatment that might temporarily restore his vision.

"I love experimentation," says LeBaron. "The worst thing you can do for me is say we're going to do something that we've been doing for 40 years. That really turns me off." So LeBaron gladly spent four hours in a submarine- like pressure chamber that pumped oxygen into his circulatory system. The procedure worked as hoped. But LeBaron was most impressed by Chapman and Buckey's combination of science and care—the fact that "these guys stayed around and were willing to try something that was a tiny, tiny step new."

LeBaron's philosophies on business, science, and life are rooted in such heady concepts as contrarian thinking, emergent behavior, and complexity science. But he realizes, too, that transformational work can come from simple gestures like moving a desk. Or, at Dartmouth, constructing a Commons.

—Jennifer Durgin

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