You are here
June 19, 2019
Statement on the Death of Former NIH Director James B. Wyngaarden, M.D.
I am saddened to learn of the passing of former National Institutes of Health Director James B. Wyngaarden, M.D. From all of us at NIH who knew and admired him, we send sincere condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.
I want to take a moment to honor and recognize Dr. Wyngaarden’s masterful leadership of the NIH and his many outstanding contributions to the biomedical research community and beyond. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Dr. Wyngaarden served as NIH Director for more than seven years, from April 1982 through July 1989.
While at the helm of NIH, Dr. Wyngaarden steered the nation’s biomedical research agency through uncharted seas with extraordinary skill. Among the major challenges that he tackled during his tenure were the nation’s biomedical research response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the emergence of recombinant DNA and other ethically charged biotechnologies.
Dr. Wyngaarden also initiated NIH’s leadership role in the international Human Genome Project—the public effort that ultimately read out the 3 billion letters in the human DNA instruction book, and that I had the privilege of leading from 1993 to its completion in 2003. I cherish the memory of attending a highly significant 1988 meeting in Reston, VA, presided over by Dr. Wyngaarden. I was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan at that time, and was honored to be invited to this meeting at which Dr. Wyngaarden was considering whether or not NIH should seek the leadership of the nascent Human Genome Project. Despite the fact that many biomedical researchers were deeply skeptical, Dr. Wyngaarden made the decision to take the leap. The consequences of that decision reverberate to the present day.
Amid all of this, Dr. Wyngaarden never lost sight of the human side of biomedical research. He was instrumental in setting up The Children’s Inn at NIH, which provides lodging and support for families of children receiving treatment at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD. Since The Children’s Inn opened in June 1990, more than 15,000 serious ill children and their families have made 60,000 visits to this “place like home.”
Before coming to NIH, Dr. Wyngaarden was a professor and chair of the department of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC. An internationally recognized authority on the regulation of purine biosynthesis and the genetics of gout, he was also well known for his strong advocacy for the importance of physician-scientists in biomedical research. He also generously shared his expertise with numerous NIH committees and served on a number of Presidential-level panels, including the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine.
I am grateful for Dr. Wyngaarden’s selfless dedication to NIH’s mission of turning scientific discovery into health. Whether researcher, health care provider, or patient, we are all benefiting from his wisdom to this day, and will remain forever in his debt.
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health