Bernadine Patricia Healy

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Bernadine Patricia Healy

Bernadine Patricia Healy (born 1944) was the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health.

Bernadine Patricia Healy is a cardiologist and health administrator who was the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1991 to 1993. Known for her outspokenness, innovative policymaking, and sometimes controversial leadership in medical and research institutions, Healy has been particularly effective in addressing medical policy and research pertaining to women. She spent the early part of her career at Johns Hopkins University where she rose to full professor on the medical school faculty while also undertaking significant administrative responsibilities. She served as deputy science advisor to President Ronald Reagan from 1984-1985. In 1985 she was appointed Head of the Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation where she remained until her appointment as director of the NIH in 1991. Healy was also president of the American Heart Association from 1988-1989 and has served on numerous national advisory committees. Her awards include two American Heart Association special awards for service and the 1992 Dana Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award for her work on promoting research on the health problems of women.

The second of Michael J. and Violet (McGrath) Healy's four daughters, Bernadine Patricia Healy was born August 2, 1944, in New York City and grew up in Long Island City, Queens, New York. Her parents, second generation Irish-Americans, operated a small perfume business from the basement of their home. Healy attended Hunter College High School, a prestigious public school in Manhattan and graduated first in her class. At Vassar College she majored in chemistry and minored in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude in 1965. One of ten women in a class of 120 at Harvard Medical School, she received her M.D. cum laude in 1970.

Healy completed her internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and spent two years at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH before returning to Johns Hopkins and working her way up the academic ranks to professor of medicine. During these years, she also served as director of the coronary care unit (1977-1984) and assistant dean for post-doctoral programs and faculty development (1979-1984). From there, Healy served the Reagan Administration as deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. President George Bush nominated her for director of NIH in September 1990 and she was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Her tenure with NIH ended when incoming President Clinton appointed a new director in 1993. Healy has been married to cardiologist Floyd D. Loop since 1985. With Loop she has a daughter, Marie McGrath Loop; her other daughter, Bartlett Ann Bulkley, is from her previous marriage to surgeon George Bulkley, whom she divorced in 1981.

Despite her various administrative posts, Healy has treated patients during much of her career. Her research has led to a deeper understanding of the pathology and treatment of heart attacks, especially in women. Her colleagues at Johns Hopkins described her as someone who often challenged conventional wisdom and created new directions in research. In addition, unlike many scientists and physicians, Healy viewed management positions as important and challenging. As she told Erik Eckholm of the New York Times, "I guess I tended to see those administrative issues, often seen as dreary work burdens, in terms of their broader policy implications." Healy demonstrated her administrative talents during her five-year directorship at the research institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation where research funding rose from eight million to thirty-six million dollars. Her responsibilities at the clinic, in addition to being a staff member of the cardiology department, involved directing the research of nine departments, including cancer, immunology, molecular biology, and cardiology.

Healy has manifested her talent and interest in shaping research policy through her many appointments to federal advisory panels, editorial boards of scientific journals, and other decision-making bodies. As the president of the American Heart Association she initiated pioneering research into women's heart disease and demonstrated that medical progress depends on the public and medical community's perception that there is a problem to be solved. Previously, heart disease was perceived as a male affliction despite the fact that it kills more women than men. Medical practitioners for years treated women's heart disease far less aggressively than men's, and most research on coronary heart disease (like most other medical research) used male subjects either predominantly or exclusively. Healy has set out to "convince both the lay and medical sectors that coronary heart disease is also a woman's disease, not a man's disease in disguise," she wrote in New England Journal of Medicine.

At the time that Healy was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, the agency included thirteen research institutes, sixteen thousand employees, a research budget of over nine billion dollars, and was a world leader in bio-medical research. Yet when Healy assumed control, the agency was beset with problems, its effectiveness was in decline, and it had been without a permanent director for twenty months. Scientists were leaving in record numbers because of non-competitive salaries, politicization of scientific agendas (a prime example was the ban on fetal-tissue research because the Republican administration believed it encouraged abortion), and congressional investigations into alleged cases of scientific misconduct. The agency had been accused of sexism and racism in hiring and promotion. Low morale and bureaucratization added to the institute's problematic image. Healy brought an aggressive and visible management style to the NIH. Her appointment was viewed positively by many because of her outstanding experience in dealing with science policy issues. In addition, because she had been a member of a panel that advised continuation of fetal-tissue research, her appointment was also seen as a move away from politicized science. She also held a series of "town meetings" with NIH scientists to pinpoint problems and form committees to make recommendations concerning NIH research priorities. Furthermore, she initiated a large scale study of the effects of vitamin supplementation, hormone replacement therapy, and dietary modification on women between the ages of forty-five and seventy-nine. She established a policy whereby the NIH would fund only those clinical trials that included both men and women when the condition being studied affected both genders. She has written a book on the subject of women's health care, A New Prescription For Women's Health: Getting the Best Medical Care in a Man's World (1995).

Healy's policy decisions at times proved controversial. For example, Healy charged the NIH Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI), whose job it was to investigate ethical matters, with improper conduct, including leaking confidential information and failing to protect the rights of scientists being investigated. In response, the head of OSI accused Healy of mishandling a scientific misconduct case at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. The allegations led to a hearing in 1991 in which Healy vigorously defended herself, as well as the changes that she had implemented at OSI.

Another controversy involved gene patenting. Despite the objections of Nobel Laureate James Watson, head of NIH's human genome project, Healy approved patent applications for 347 genes. She believed that patenting genes would promote, not hinder, the ability to access information about them and also spark much-needed international debate on the subject. A third controversy strained her relationship with the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. Healy lobbied against provisions in a congressional bill concerning the NIH that would make the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical studies a legal requirement, arguing that it represented "micro-management" of NIH. Attempting to negotiate a political compromise on another issue, she lobbied against overturning the Bush Administration's ban on fetal tissue research, despite her previous support for such research.

Healy has described herself as a life-long Republican and a feminist. She credits her father's belief in the importance of education for girls as the reason for her enrollment in an academically competitive high school—an unorthodox move for a Catholic girl during that era. In both medical school at Harvard and during her career at Johns Hopkins she was forced to deal with incidents of sexism. Among her achievements at mid-career point is her success in pointing out and undermining the subtle but pervasive bias against women in medical research. Healy continues to provoke both criticism and praise for the vocal stances and decisive actions that have defined her career.

Further Reading

Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines, Gale, 1993, pp. 35-36.

Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 1992, pp. A28-29.

New York Times, November 3, 1992, p. B2.

New York Times Biographical Service, December 1991, pp. 1285-1287.

Science, February 1, 1991, pp. 508-511; August 30, 1991, p. 963; September 6, 1991, pp. 1087-1089.

Washington Post, July 14, 1993, pp. A1 ff.

Working Woman, September 1992, pp. 61-63 ff. □