If Atticus Finch were alive…

What makes someone a hero? Where do you find such people, and what is it that gives them the courage to do things others won’t?

This past month, I came across two stories that may provide some answers.

“They’re trying to cover this stuff up.”

You may not think of heroes as middle-aged and wearing suits, but Ron Bilott is a hero. His story in a recent NY Times article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” is both chilling and inspiring.

For much of his early career, Ron Bilott was an environmental lawyer, the kind who made partner defending large chemical companies. Not exactly the kind of lawyer everyone looks up to. But one day he got a call from a cattle farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Ron had spent time as a boy. Also in Parkersburg is DuPont Chemical, which owns a site there 35 times the size of the Pentagon. The farmer said he had evidence that animals were sick and dying from something in the water and that Dupont was trying to cover it up. When the farmer mentioned knowing Ron’s grandmother, Ron decided to meet him.

That was in 1998, and though it was “inconceivable” to others that his firm could take such a case, he decided to do it because it was ‘‘the right thing to do.”

Then he did what great lawyers can do. He went through stack after stack after stack of documentation - from DuPont, from scientists, from government offices - searching for evidence. And he uncovered that Dupont dumped over 14 million pounds of a chemical called PFOA - a chemical it knew could cause birth defects - and let that chemical seep into the ground and into the drinking water used by 100,000 people and all the local farms.

“It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’

Then the fight began. Read the NY Times article if you can. It’s riveting, and it captures the hero’s journey, complete with setbacks and victories over a long, long time. Just collecting and analyzing health data from local residents took seven years, but in 2011 scientists found a ‘‘probable link’’ between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.

Today, Ron Bilott is currently prosecuting the second of 3,535 person injury cases, fighting for people who got sick just from drinking their local water. Seventeen years after that phone call from a cattle farmer, he continues to fight.

‘‘It was a great opportunity to use my background for people who really needed it.’’

“Her ovarian cancer could have been prevented.”

A few weeks later, I watched Tania Simoncelli’s TED talk. Tania was a science adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and worked closely with Chris Hansen, a lawyer who had been there for 30 years.

She was investigating issues at the intersection of science and civil liberties and wanted the ACLU to engage “in a much bigger way, in a way that could really make a difference.” It was 2005. When she mentioned gene patents to Chris, he was incredulous.

“You're telling me that the US government has been issuing patents on part of the human body? That can't be right.”

Not only was she right, but it had been going on for over two decades. Whole companies were based on owning these patents, which enabled them to charge high fees, for example, for certain tests. This was turning out to be bad for patients.

“That means that you can't give your gene to your doctor and ask him or her to look at it, say, to see if it has any mutations, without permission of the patent holder. It also means that the patent holder has the right to stop anyone from using that gene in research or clinical testing. Allowing patent holders, often private companies, to lock up stretches of the human genome was harming patients."

It took years of research into genes and patents, and a lot of creative thinking, just to develop an effective strategy. They filed their case in 2009, and the fight began.

There were ups and downs over the following years. In an appeal that they lost, one judge even said “I don't want to shake up the biotech industry.” They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court.

Against all odds, they won. They eliminated “a significant barrier to biomedical discovery and innovation.” Patients who would have otherwise died because of undetected diseases would now have access to the tests that they need.

“We took a big risk in taking this case. Part of what gave us the courage to take that risk was knowing that we were doing the right thing.”

The courage of your convictions

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who’s defending Tom Robinson, a man wrongfully accused of rape. He takes an unpopular position, risking his career and his personal safety. He knows he’s unlikely to win, but he does it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

At one point in the book, he has his son spend time with a woman fighting her addiction to pain medicines, and he explains why he did it.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

I used to think of Atticus Finch as representing some unattainable ideal. But now I think that you or I could be Atticus Finch, like Ron or Tania or Chris.

The words “courage” and “heroic” aren’t reserved for characters in books or for famous people. They could apply to anyone doing something they believe in, persisting even if they know they may not succeed. “Hero” isn’t a label, it’s a choice.

Atticus Finch