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Bernadine Healy: Taking The Initiative

[ photo: Bernadine Healy ]

Taking The Initiative

When President George H. W. Bush appointed Bernadine Healy, M.D., class of ’65, to head the National Institutes of Health, the agency had been leaderless for 20 months, morale was low, scientists were leaving in droves, and the agency was under congressional investigation for misconduct.¬† The first woman ever appointed to head the NIH, Dr. Healy turned the agency around and launched several initiatives that continue to have far-reaching effects.

Dr. Healy recruited a world-renowned team of scientists to head the Human Genome Project, established a separate institute within the NIH for nursing research, and changed NIH policy to insist on including both men and women in clinical trials where the condition under investigation affects both genders.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment as head of the NIH was the Women’s Health Initiative, a $625-million effort to study health issues affecting women over 50.¬† Among many other findings, the study revealed conclusively that hormone replacement therapy significantly¬† increases the risk of breast cancer, heart attack, and stroke.¬† Those findings have resulted in a sustained 15% decrease in breast cancer in women over 50 in the U.S.

Dr. Healy died in 2011 at the age of 67 of brain cancer.

VQ Summer 2004
Photo credit: Danuta Offinowski