On April 5, 1968, neurophysiologist Dr. Felton Earls emerged from a soundproof room in an underground laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, where he had spent the last 36 hours mapping the responses of a cat's brain to high- and low-frequency sounds. What he found was a campus in uproar, and a totally changed world; Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
At that moment, Earls decided he could not in good conscience spend his career shut off in the cloister of the academic laboratory. He rededicated himself immediately to what he calls society's best hope: our children, and the communities that nurture them. He switched professional gears to gain degrees as a pediatrician, a child psychiatrist, and a professor of human behavior and development at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Earls has become a social scientist in the most literal sense of the term--a doctor who treats communities. According to a January 6, 2004 article in the New York Times called "On Crime as Science (One Neighbor at a Time)," his groundbreaking field research is credited with debunking the "broken windows" theory of crime and is turning the field of criminology on its head. His research reveals a startling finding: The most important determinant with respect to crime rates is not race, IQ, family, or individual temperament, but the willingness of neighbors to act, when needed, for one another's benefit, particularly for the benefit of one another's children.
The policy implications of his work are far-reaching. In the words of a former director for the National Institute of Justice, this finding is "far and away the most important research insight in the last decade."
Earls is currently collaborating with his wife of 32 years, the neurophysiologist Mary Carlson, M.D., on a project to promote the well-being of the devastating number of children who have been orphaned by AIDS in Tanzania.