August 8, 2011

Statement on the Death of Former NIH Director Bernadine P. Healy

I am deeply saddened by the death of former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Bernadine P. Healy, and will greatly miss her courageous leadership on behalf of biomedical research. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bernadine’s husband Floyd Loop, her daughters, her extended family, and the many others affected by the loss of Bernadine’s dynamic and compassionate presence.

The first woman to lead the NIH, Dr. Healy will be long remembered for her visionary efforts that transformed the landscape of women’s health research. Just three weeks after being named NIH Director in 1991, she went before Congress to announce, “We need a moon walk for women.” That “moon walk” took the form of the Women’s Health Initiative, the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trial of women’s health ever undertaken in the United States. It focused on strategies for preventing heart disease, osteoporosis, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer—major causes of death and disability in postmenopausal women. Also, in order to better understand the different ways that diseases and treatments affect men and women, Dr. Healy established a policy that all NIH funded clinical trials on conditions that affect both genders must include both men and women.

Personally, I will be forever grateful to Dr. Healy for her vigorous support of the public effort to sequence the human genome and her keen insights into the potential of genomic research for revolutionizing medicine. In fact, it was genomics that brought us together. I first met Bernadine in 1992, when she persuaded me to leave a professorship at the University of Michigan to lead NIH’s role in the then-fledgling International Human Genome Project. She was persistent and persuasive in convincing me to come to the NIH and lead that effort. She also recognized the promise of genomics by supporting the establishment of an intramural genomic research program at NIH and later, after leaving NIH, by serving as a powerful advocate for NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas.

Noted for her strong and outspoken commitment to her core beliefs, be it at an administrative meeting or a Congressional hearing, Dr. Healy also had a less well-known side, that of a brilliant, dedicated, and immensely caring physician and researcher. For a glimpse at this side, let me leave you with some moving remarks that Dr. Healy made for an NIH exhibit on pioneering women doctors: “All of us, I believe, in our hearts are humanitarian. And how wonderful to be in a career that in almost any dimension of it—whether you're the doctor at the bedside, or the scientist in the laboratory, or the public health doc tracking down the latest epidemic—that you are doing something that is pure in its fundamental purpose, which is helping another human being.”

We’ll miss you, Bernie; you indeed helped countless human beings with your dedication to medicine and medical research.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health