McDonalds with a purpose.

Govindappa Venkataswamy, an opthalmologist, passed away July 7th. He’s not an American icon, but could (and should) be for his entrepreneurial ways. The WSJ just began a weekly column honoring the passing of prominent business figures, and Dr. V’s passing is an especially nice way to inaugurate the column.

Dr. V Started the Aravind Eye Care System with an 11-bed clinic in 1976, and has since grew it into a five-hospital system. The Aravind system provides affordable surgery for the masses–quite literally–and now impoverished cataract patients can have their eyesight restored for about $40–and if that’s too much, for free. It also proved that there was a way to make money at the bottom of the pyramid; the free are paid out of the profits of paying patients.

What makes the Aravind system interesting to innovation is the origin of its success:

He was inspired, Aravind says, by the assembly-line model of McDonald’s founder Roy Kroc — learned during a visit to Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill. … “Can’t we do what McDonald’s and Burger King have done in the United States?”

Sound familiar? In 1910, when Ford’s engineers came back from studying the assembly lines of the Chicago meatpacking plants (first publicized in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book, The Jungle), one of his chief engineers said “If they can kill pigs that way, we can build cars that way.” From food to cars to food to the operating rooms of Tamil Nadu:

The assembly-line approach is most evident in the operating room, where each surgeon works two tables, one for the patient having surgery, the other for a patient being prepped. In the OR, doctors use state-of-the-art equipment such as operating microscopes that can swivel between tables. Surgeons typically work 12-hour days, and the fastest can perform up to 100 surgeries in a day. The average is 2,000 surgeries annually per surgeon — nearly 10 times the Indian national average. Despite the crowding and speed, complication rates are vanishingly low, the system says.

What if the best ideas of modern economies were, with care, put to better use? As Dr V said, ” Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.”