Home About RSS

Eulogy for John Barton

I was asked by John’s family to speak at his memorial service on August 16.  Because of his important role in, among many other things, law and the biosciences, especially with regard to intellectual property issues, I thought it might be worthwhile to post here my comments on him.  They focus primarily on his role at Stanford Law School, but do (I hope) give some idea of the breadth and importance of his work and of the fundamental goodness of the man.  He is missed.

* * *

John H. Barton and Stanford Law School

One of the worst things about growing older is the ever increasing number of memorial services.  Sometimes, they do serve as celebrations of lives that had come, through old age or a long struggle with disease, to a natural completeness.  This death, though, was different.  It was tragically premature.  John was in great physical and mental shape and his inquiring spirit was always young.  His family and friends, his colleagues, and all the people around the world who have benefited from his work have been cheated of many more good years of John Barton.

But as John would have been the first to note, life is always uncertain and he had a good run.  It wouldn’t have been like him to complain – a little wistful disappointment, perhaps, but no complaints.  And so, we too should focus on our gratitude for having had so much of John, for so long, to celebrate.

This is particularly true for Stanford Law School.  John arrived at the law school as a first year student in September 1965, almost 44 years ago.  I want to spend the next few minutes telling those of you not from the law school a little bit about what he has meant to us.

John was not our typical law student, a hot shot just out of an elite undergraduate school.  In 1958 he graduated magnum cum laude from Marquette University with joint degrees in physics and in philosophy, an early sign of the breadth of his interests.  The next year, while serving in the Navy, he married Julie and they started their family.  After three years in the Navy, he went to work for a top-secret defense electronics firm.  (I doubt that discrete John ever told anyone what he did there).  As a result, he did not start law school until he was nearing 30, with a wife and four children.  (The fifth made his appearance during Christmas break, John’s second year.)

In 1965 Stanford Law School was in the middle of its steep ascent, from a good regional school, to a very good national school, to one of the world’s top law schools.  In spite of his family obligations and thirty hours a week of paying work throughout law school, John was a spectacular law student.  Our colleague John Merryman remembers John Barton as his student in first year Property. It was, John Merryman says, “the first time I realized the school was getting so good that some of the students were smarter than the faculty.”  He even had first year student John Barton teach one of his class sessions.

After graduating in 1968 (in a rare lapse, only second in his class), John spent one year working for a leading Washington D.C. law firm, Wilmer Cutler and Pickering.  (Those were the days when the largest law firm near Palo Alto had fewer than 20 lawyers.)  But after only a year we pulled him back to the law school. He started teaching in the fall of 1969 and won our teaching award, voted by the students, his very first year.  He was part of  our faculty for the next 40 years.

It’s not quite clear how old the Stanford Law School is – it depends on when you start counting, which may in turn depend on when the Development Office thinks it useful to declare an anniversary – but I estimate that John was at the law school with about half of the students the school has ever had and with about 80 percent of our living alumni.  He taught several thousand Stanford law students, helping them with everything from first year contract law to courses he helped to create, like international business transactions, law in radically different cultures, intellectual property as a business asset, and biotechnology law and policy.  Our colleague, Buzz Thompson was his student in the mid-1970s.  He remembers that John “was the epitome of the absent minded professor.  In those days of chalk, by the end of class, John would be covered by chalk dust — on the front of his shirt and jacket, on his side, on the seat of his pants.  But his lectures were consistently brilliant — packed with interesting and valuable insights.”

John was a particularly important teacher for our foreign graduate students.  The law school has long offered masters and doctoral degrees to lawyers from other countries.  These students, particularly in the doctoral program, can be difficult to teach.  Although they are all very intelligent, they come from many diverse cultures and bring with them vastly different levels of knowledge of the American legal system or American legal thinking – and of scholarly written English.  Even in his retirement, John always took foreign students.  He worked, hard, with them to improve their analysis and insights – and their written English.  He was truly tireless in that role and was greatly appreciated, and loved, for it – and, as a result, he helped populate and improve law faculties around the world.  We’ve gotten several emails from his former international students.  Here’s a sample, from Professor Yahong Li at the University of Hong Kong:

“I have been strongly influenced by his broad knowledge of law, technologies and society, his intellectual curiosity, his work ethic, his kindness, and his love for mankind.  I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be his student, and he will live in my heart as a great mentor forever.”

John retired from the Law School in 2002, which meant that he stopped teaching – except, of course, for all the times when he was brought back to teach courses we needed, to supervise international students who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks, or to deliver guest lectures for colleagues, like me, bent on exploiting him.  In spite of these continuing teaching obligations, retirement increased, not diminished, his research and policy work.

Although I haven’t mentioned it yet, John was always first and foremost a scholar – not an ivory tower scholar but one who wanted to help make policy, with the dirty hands and the occasional scar to prove it.  John’s work covered a very broad range but three aspects of it are especially noteworthy. First, he was interested in how science and law intersected, including but not limited to intellectual property.  Second, he was interested in the whole world, not just the United States.  And third, he was interested in concrete problems, where solutions would make the world a better place.  In the first two, he was a decade or two ahead of his time – forty years ago he picked out fields that had not yet begun their enormous growth in importance to law schools.  In the third, he was timeless.

John’s first topic as an academic was nuclear weapons control.  He then became interested in agriculture – the Green Revolution and its possible successors.  And eventually he came to focus on human health, particularly but not solely through vaccines.  To all of these he brought an engagement with the science along with a deep knowledge and interest in the legal tools that shaped these problems and their possible solutions – public international law, trade law, environmental law, antitrust law, and, increasingly, intellectual property law.  He mastered these legal fields not just because they were fascinating but, primarily, because they were important for people’s lives, including the lives of billions of people who did not know they existed – and whose existence these areas of law often slighted

And so he fought for more food, better drugs, better vaccines, but he did it by working with all sides:  governments, non-governmental organizations, and multi-national corporations.  He idealized none of them, he demonized none of them – he recognized that all were crucial pieces of solutions.  I think John may have been happiest, in recent years, about his role several years ago as chair of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights and Developing Countries.  It was extraordinary that the British government, which created this commission, should reach out to an American scholar to chair it, but then John was an extraordinary American scholar.

John’s bibliography shows nearly a hundred books, chapters, articles, and other writings.  Very few appear in law reviews, the standard home for our trade’s work.  He wrote and worked with hundreds of collaborators.  Few were law professors or even lawyers.   John was thoroughly interdisciplinary before interdisciplinary was cool – when it was unconventional and even a bit odd.  If that ever bothered him, or worried him, he never showed it.  He did work he thought was important, in the ways that it could best be done, whether or not that fit into the traditional mold of a law school, or law professor.  That mold ultimately changed, in part because John helped break it.

I’ve talked about what John did – what he taught and wrote, but a large part of John’s importance to the law school came from how he was.

Our dean, Larry Kramer, said this about John:

“To me, the most remarkable thing about John was his selflessness and good will.  He never pushed or sought anything for himself and he was always willing to extend himself for others.  He pitched in and just did what needed to be done—without complaint, without needing or seeking recognition.  Even in retirement, he was as active and engaged a colleague as anyone.  And always modest, soft-spoken, and gentle.”

Paul Goldstein calls him “that rarest of beings in the legal academy: a truly humble man.”

And Miguel Mendez recalls “the warm and respectful manner in which he treated everyone: faculty, staff, and students.”

Miguel’s words remind me of a scene from Pygmalion (and My Fair Lady).  Eliza accuses Higgens – Professor Higgins, note – of rudeness.  She holds up Colonel Pickering, who treats a flower girl like a duchess.  Higgins defends himself by saying he treats everyone the same; he treats a duchess like a flower girl.  John treated everyone equally well – with attention, concern, and respect – from the eccentric questioner at a talk to the newest and most clueless student, staff member . . . or colleague.

Pat Adan, who served as John’s assistant in recent years, told me the staff’s general feeling about John:  “Always a gentlemen, never a complaint, always courteous if something needed fixing, he was grateful for anything you did for him.”

Respect, courtesy, and gentleness were certainly important parts of John’s character.  But of his many virtues, the one that strikes me most powerfully was his integrity.  John did what he thought was right, whether or not it was popular or good for his career.  He never even seemed to think about doing anything else – he never seemed to be tempted, because doing anything other than the right thing never seemed to occur to him as an option.

There is a saying so old that it is in Latin:  De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est – speak nothing but good of the dead.  As I realized what a long list of John’s virtues I would have, it occurred to me, as an academic matter, to try to find some failings.  There must have been some – I’m sure humble John would have treated us to a long list – but the best I could come up with was that he wasn’t great at telling jokes . . . although he was very good at laughing at them.

I want to end with a personal word.  To me, John was more than a colleague.  He was a friend, a mentor, a support, and a model of what one could do with an academic life.  I miss him, and I owe him.

And so does all of Stanford Law School – its faculty, alumni, students, and staff for the last 40 years.  We are, individually and collectively, in his debt.  It is comforting, though, to think that John will live on as part of the continuing fabric of the Law School, influencing, as an indelible part of the institution, the lives of countless more students, staff, and colleagues.

We are all worse for his too early death; we are all better for the life he lived so well.  We will miss him.

Leave a Reply