Teacher Herre Talsma continues to fight for fair pharmaceutical industry, even after retiring

Herre Talsma, Picture Wieke Eefting

Tell (former) pharmacy students that assistant professor Herre Talsma is retiring, and they’ll laugh and ask: “Is his brother leaving too? Because he used to come and do inspection.” That requires some additional explanation. Whenever students didn’t maintain their lab journals well during practicum sessions, or weren’t quite paying attention during a game, Talsma would say: “If my brother, who works for the Inspection, were to stop by, he wouldn’t approve of this!” And then a week later, Talsma would enter the practicum classroom as ‘Herre’s brother’, wearing a different name tag on his lab coat, and proceed to criticise all kinds of thing. Hilarity would ensure – with a touch of seriousness.

“There have been students who weren’t sure whether it was me or my twin brother. Every now and then, I’d be very convincing in my acting. But well, with those roles, I’d give myself the opportunity of being very critical. After my brother left, I’d be able to say: ‘Ah, that brother of mine. If you just do this and that, it’ll all be fixed.’ That critical approach was never threatening, because I didn’t fail anyone. In my experience, it’s: learning, making mistakes, not being punished, learning from that, and continuing.”

Good cop, bad cop, all in a single person. Sounds brilliant. Talsma did have to learn his tricks. “I’m from the Frisian countryside, where everyone was very linear. I quickly realised that if you employ that stiffness everywhere like that, you’ll scare away or repel a lot of people.”

As teacher, he felt like a fish in water

Originally, he wanted to become a pharmacist, but life had different plans. When he was called into military service, he refused on principle, and became a so-called conscientious objector. His father, as a soldier, had participated in police action in Indonesia. “That always caused the most terrible discussions at home. I completely disagreed with what had happened there. My mother told me I couldn’t say anything about it, because after all, my father had serviced his country. I didn’t want to shoot others, I wanted to contribute to society. That’s why I started studying pharmacy.” For Talsma, this was the best course of action given his Christian faith, as well. He wanted to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, use his talents to contribute to society, and not just keep them to himself.

After his studies, he wasn’t allowed to start working as a pharmacist immediately. As conscientious objector, he’d have a head start compared to those who did serve in the military. He was, however, allowed to teach, so that’s what he did. Talsma would go on to teach for the rest of his career, feeling like a fish in water from the very beginning.

He started in Leiden. “Two days after graduating, I taught the students in my own year about what was then called ‘artsenijbereidkunde’ (drug stores). That went well, by working together. I clearly indicated what I could and could not do, and that was accepted. Apparently, I was pretty good at that course, and I learned quickly.”

He preferred to be the thorn in the flesh

When the pharmacy study programme in Leiden was forced to close as a result of ‘operatie Taakverdeling en Concentratie’ (operation distribution of tasks and concentration, ed.), Talsma was relocated to Utrecht, where he further developed himself as a teacher, and joined the codetermination – and stayed there. He had no interest in becoming a manager or a professor. “I could devote my time to doing what I liked: teaching, and working to promote the importance of education. I might be a little too strict for a position of responsibility of groups. I preferred being the thorn in the flesh, that critical factor guarding the education. I preferred to do that rather than being seated at the top and try to enact change that way. It’s a little bit of an easier job, but oh well.”

A lot of people won’t mind so much that Talsma is leaving, he thinks. Whether you met him in the University Council or the faculty council, you’d always find the same Herre: sharp, elaborately arguing, and tenacious. A codetermination person pur sang, for whom the human, the education, and openness were the most important things. Look through DUB’s archive and you’ll see his name pop up regularly. “I wasn’t always easy, especially in co-determination. I always called things what they were, and that did tend to hit a nerve in others sometimes. Sometimes, I’d cause trouble for administrators who had to make complicated decisions. Whenever money was redistributed from education to research, I’d be on top of things. That didn’t make me popular, but I thought it was necessary. Looking back, I think perhaps I was a little too strict in that sometimes. I realised that researchers were struggling, because they constantly had to find new funding. But I thought, and think, that research should not be done at the expense of education.”

He took his job as codetermination council member just as seriously as he did his position as teacher: checking policies, and acting on time when things went wrong. Sometimes, his style had the opposite effect of what he intended; sometimes, he did get things done. “Until 2014, employees were unable to get their holiday hours paid as salary, despite the fact that that was listed as an option in the collective labour agreement. So I talked to a few people and said: let’s take this to the top, have a chat, and tell them that we’ll block things on this point eventually. And then, holiday hours could be paid out again.”

Results like that were great, but the development of students in codetermination councils was even more satisfying to Talsma. “I showed young people how a complicated system works, and how they can influence that system. We tried to take a stance together, always based on good argumentation. Sometimes it would happen that I had to admit a student had a better view on things than I did.” He was popular amongst the student members. At the codetermination ball, he liked joining in on the ‘Mexicans’ drinking game. “I always regarded students as equals. I have a head start, because I have knowledge. But students have knowledge too, and I consciously appealed to that, for instance when my computer refused to do what I wanted it to. I dared to be vulnerable and admit my own mistakes.”

Medication shouldn’t just be for the happy few

Talsma has to retire, but feels like he isn’t done with education yet. “It’s good that things come to an end, but I do think that I can still contribute a lot to society. Wherever it’s asked for, I wouldn’t mind helping out.” One issue Talsma will work on, is already clear: how can we get custom affordable medication for everyone? “My biggest fear is that at this moment, all kinds of medications are being developed that will then cost millions per therapy, and will only be affordable for the happy few. The stocks of pharmaceutical companies have never been this high. Manufacturers have the right to a fair compensation, but the business model is completely out of control, and there’s something unreasonable about that.”

The problem, according to Talsma: many potential medications that are discovered at universities, are then bought for further development by pharmaceutical companies that patent them and then earn a lot of money from them – often by selling it to third parties again. His solution: make the formulas of medication, the processing of chemical agents, and the active substances, public.

Medicine developers have to make the formulas public

Talsma wants developers to work with Creative Commons licenses, in which they retain all the rights but allow others to use the same formulas. That will require a change in the patent law, to ensure ‘open’ actually means ‘open’. If, then, the raw materials are mainly made in Europe instead of China, and are therefore more easily available, manufacturers can focus on production. “That would allow more competition between manufacturers, and then they’d for instance be able to produce medication in South Africa in a South African way, with South African quality. Standards don’t have to be the same in every country. That way, you can make medication available to everyone. It’s ridiculous that people are dying just because they can’t afford medication.”

Either together with the university or by himself, Talsma will come up with projects for students that contribute to his ideal. His farewell symposium – of which the date is as yet uncertain, because of corona – will focus on open source. And through his church’s network, he’ll also try to enter politics. “I believe that everyone will agree that medication should be affordable and available for everyone.”

Aside from his professional activities, he will remain active for the Utrecht Protestant Church. In various nursing homes and care facilities, Talsma provides bonding activities for young and old. “Those homes have become separate entities from society. People are wasting away, no longer see children and grandchildren. It’s dramatic. Nursing homes and care facilities could contribute so much to societal cohesion. As a church, we’re trying to contribute to that.” He almost forgets to mention that he also has an allotment at Papendorp, but it’s uncertain how much time he’ll be able to spend there. For an idealist like Herre Talsma, work is never done.