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Former NIH Director Bernadine Healy Dies

8 August 2011 4:51 pm
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Bernadine Healy, a cardiologist who was the first woman to direct the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1991 to 1993, died on Saturday from brain cancer.

Appointed by President George H. W. Bush, Healy was an outspoken NIH director during a tumultuous period. She proposed the Women's Health Initiative, a $625-million study that followed more than 140,000 women in part to learn about the health effects of estrogen replacement therapy. Although some researchers questioned the cost and top-down management of the initiative, it proved its worth a decade later by showing that taking estrogen raises a woman's risk of stroke, heart disease, and breast cancer.

Healy battled a powerful member of Congress, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), over scientific misconduct investigations involving Nobelist David Baltimore's lab and Robert Gallo's role in discovering the AIDS virus. James Watson, the first director of the Human Genome Project, quit after clashing with Healy. But she made a smart hire by replacing him with Francis Collins, who is now NIH director.

Healy crafted the first strategic plan for NIH, which went nowhere after meeting resistance. She also oversaw the transfer of mental health, alcoholism, and drug abuse institutes from another agency to NIH. And she became caught up in a battle over fetal tissue research; as an administration appointee, she supported Bush's ban before Congress.

"She was a very talented, highly intelligent, energetic woman who rubbed some people the wrong way, but when she believed in something she was extremely effective in getting it implemented," says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Harvard Medical School's David Korn, who was dean of the Stanford medical school at the time, says that Healy was "in a difficult position" as one of few women in leadership posts at NIH. Her background as a cardiologist and desire to "corporatize" NIH drew "hostility" from basic scientists who worried about their funding, Korn says. Yet the strategic plan was a "preview" of what a subsequent NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, did when he created an office to analyze NIH's portfolio, Korn says. "I think it was very thoughtful and forethinking of her," Korn says.

President Bill Clinton did not retain Healy, who later became dean of Ohio State University's medical school. She also ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and led the Red Cross during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She worked as a health editor and columnist for US News and World Report until last year when a brain tumor that was removed in 1999 recurred. She was 67 when she died.

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