NIH News Alert
National Library of Medicine

Friday, October 18, 2002

Robert Mehnert
Kathleen Cravedi
(301) 496-6308

NIH Pays Special Tribute to Late Director
Donald Fredrickson Papers Added to "Profiles in Science"

Bethesda, Maryland — Cholesterol: Never has so much attention been focused on sets of numbers. And there's one scientist we have to thank for this intense interest in cholesterol and its effect on heart disease. His name is Donald Fredrickson. Not only did he discover the relationship between heart disease and cholesterol, he also headed the National Institutes of Health under three U.S. presidents.

Donald S. Fredrickson, M.D., who died on June 7, 2002 was remembered as a scientist, statesman, and humanitarian by colleagues at a memorial program in NIH's Natcher Auditorium October 18, 2002. The occasion was also marked by the addition of his papers to "Profiles in Science." This Web site ( is dedicated to documenting the lives and works of prominent 20th century biomedical scientists, including, for example, Nobelists Joshua Lederberg, Julius Axelrod, and Marshall Nirenberg. It is a continuing project, and the Library plans to announce each new collection as it is added.

"Fredrickson's studies of the connection between lipids (fats and cholesterol) and heart disease made him one of the most widely cited physiologists of the 1960s and 1970s, and highlighted the benefits of a healthy diet," said Dr. Alexa McCray, who heads the Profiles in Science project.

Fredrickson was born in Colorado and received his M.D. in 1949 from the University of Michigan, before becoming employed at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 1953. In 1966 he was named director of the Institute.

Fredrickson's research on cholesterol and the structure of the plasma lipoproteins resulted in a system for classifying abnormalities in lipid transport in the blood which was adopted by the World Health Organization as an international standard for identifying increased risks of coronary artery disease. Fredrickson also discovered two genetic diseases. One was Tangier Disease, a disease of cholesterol transport named for the secluded island of Tangier, off the coast of Virginia. Fredrickson also unlocked the secrets of the genetic disorder "cholesteryl ester storage," a lysosomal enzyme deficiency.

As NIH director from 1975 to 1981, he mediated between scientists and the federal government during contentious, far-ranging debates over the direction of medical research policy, research funding, and the dangers of gene splicing, or recombinant DNA. He proved a staunch defender of the freedom of scientific inquiry and of the interests of scientists to the extent that, at times, he incurred criticism from environmental activists as well as high-ranking government officials.

During the controversy over the safety of recombinant DNA, scientists, administrators, politicians, and the public confronted serious but unproven health hazards produced by a new technology. The effort to find a compromise that would preserve both scientific freedom and the public's health, an effort led by Fredrickson, is a case study of a democratic society managing risks and ethical conflicts created by advances in science.

The online exhibit features correspondence, diaries, unpublished manuscripts, published articles and editorials, photographs, and audio recordings illustrating the life and career of Dr. Fredrickson. Visitors to the site can view, for example, his childhood scrapbook, as well as extensive documentation relating to the regulation of genetic research and to government funding for biomedical research in a time of fiscal constraints. An introductory exhibit places Dr. Fredrickson's accomplishments in historical context.

"Profiles in Science" was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. NIH is one of the health agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Note to editors: Photographs of Dr. Fredrickson are available from NLM. Email requests to