Blumenthal, Susan J.
Susan J. Blumenthal
Born c. 1951; married Edward Markey (a congressman), 1988. Education: Earned her M.D. and M.P.A.
Addresses: Office—Tufts University School of Medicine, 136 Harrison Ave., Boston, MA 02111.
Branch chief in the National Institutes of Health, including director of behavioral medicine, 1984–93; professor, Georgetown University Medical School, 1980s–; Vice-President and Research Director, Society for Women's Health Research, 1990–93; U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women's Health, 1993–97; U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, 1993–2004; professor at several universities and medical centers, 2001–.
Awards: Abram L. Sachar Silver Medallion for outstanding contributions to education, National Women's Committee Conference at Brandeis University, 2005.
Susan Blumenthal, a research physician for the United States government, spoke up in the 1980s to warn the country that the government was not taking women's health as seriously as men's health. She and a colleague exposed the fact that many health studies looked only at male patients. Her advocacy helped convince the federal government to spend significant new money on women's health concerns, including breast cancer research. During the 1990s, Blumenthal played a key role in these new efforts as the assistant surgeon general and director of the government's new Office of Women's Health. Since leaving the government, she has continued to be an advocate for public health efforts.
Blumenthal grew up in Palo Alto, California. She decided to become a doctor at ten years old when she saw her mother suffering from thyroid cancer. She spent her summers during high school working at Stanford University in the department of pediatric neurology and the news department. Her resolve to become a doctor was strengthened when she was 20 and her mother was stricken with cancer again. "I didn't want anyone to suffer the way she did, and I vowed I would do everything possible to keep that from happening to other women," she told Daryl Savage of the Palo Alto Weekly. She later did her medical internship and residency at Stanford Hospital.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Blumenthal worked at the National Institutes of Health as a branch chief overseeing research programs on mental illness, suicide, behavioral medicine, disease prevention, and nutrition. She also encouraged new studies on health differences between men and women. By 1988, she was the director of behavioral medicine at the NIH and also held an associate professor position at the Georgetown University Medical School.
Blumenthal and another NIH doctor, Florence Hazeltine, complained that the agency's studies of heart disease and some cancers used only men as subjects. They argued that the NIH needed to closely track those diseases and others, such as glaucoma, diabetes, and mental illness, in women as well as men. When decision-makers in the agency resisted, they took their argument to Congress and the press and received support from feminist groups and some female members of Congress. In 1990, a study by Congress' General Accounting Office strongly criticized the NIH for not doing more research on women.
That same year, Blumenthal and Hazeltine founded the Society for Women's Health Research. Blumenthal became its vice-president and research director. The group founded the Journal of Women's Health and an annual conference, the Congress on Women's Health. They achieved a victory in 1991 when the administration of President George H. W. Bush ordered the NIH to fund several new women's health studies. Between 1990 and 1996, federal funding of breast cancer increased from $90 million to $552 million.
By 1990, Blumenthal was already well-known in Washington, D.C. as the wife of Edward Markey, a congressman from Massachusetts. Blumenthal and Markey married in June of 1988. Their wedding took place at a Navy chapel, and a Roman Catholic priest and rabbi performed the service together.
When Bill Clinton was elected president, he nominated Blumenthal to join his administration as the first-ever deputy assistant secretary for women's health. As director of the Office for Women's Health, she helped oversee and coordinate a $4 billion budget in several key agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. Blumenthal advised the White House and governmental and non-profit organizations on women's health.
Perhaps Blumenthal's highest-profile accomplishment in the job came in 1995, when she convinced the United States government's defense, intelligence, and space agencies to allow imaging technology used for military and space efforts to be used to detect breast cancer. In April of 1995, the Central Intelligence Agency revealed their formerly top-secret imaging technology. Blumenthal predicted that once it was tested and put into wide use, it would find breast cancer one to two years before it could be felt. "If we can image a missile 15,000 miles away, surely we should use this technology to detect a small lump in a woman's breast," she said at a press conference, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Blumenthal was also the co-chair of the National Action Plan for Breast Cancer, a presidential initiative that coordinated public and private work on the disease. "With the end of the Cold War, our new national enemies are diseases like breast cancer and AIDS that are claiming the lives of our citizens," Blumenthal told Judy Mann of the Washington Post. "We must wage an all-out assault on these illnesses."
By late 1997, however, many breast-cancer advocates were criticizing Blumenthal's work. They argued that she hurt research into the disease by diverting funding for certain conferences and educational efforts so that her office controlled them. Also, critics complained that in the summer of 1997, her office put out a request for proposals—an invitation to submit bids for a government contract—that seemed to imply that the researchers who got the contract would have to work with Blumenthal as a co-author. The inspector general for Health and Human Services began examining whether the contract was proper. Blumenthal argued that the complaints about her work were motivated by politics and a personal feud. However, in October of 1997, she left the Office for Women's Health, intending to accept a new appointment as Clinton's senior adviser on women's health. After breast cancer groups protested, Blumenthal declined the new post, writing to Clinton that she hoped her decision would help everyone involved re-focus on the fight against breast cancer. Blumenthal retained her title as assistant surgeon general, and remained in that post through 2004. Like the surgeon general, she wore a naval uniform, since the job officially made her a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.
Blumenthal has held several positions in academia and non-profits. She worked as a women's studies professor at Brandeis University, returned to Stanford as a visiting professor, served as a professor at the Tufts University Medical Center, and retained her position on the psychiatry faculty at the Georgetown School of Medicine. She was also a visiting fellow at Harvard University's school of government. While at Brandeis, she worked with students to create the first comprehensive website of health information for college-aged women, www.4collegewomen.org. She has continued to argue publicly for women's health and public health initiatives. She has written health columns for Elle and U.S. News and World Report and served as host and medical director for a PBS television series on health. In September of 2005, she co-authored a Washington Post opinion piece with Jan Eliasson, president of the United Nations General Assembly, about the importance of clean water to the health of the world's poor.
Boston Globe, August 6, 1999, p. D2.
Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1995, sec. News, p. 18.
Palo Alto Weekly, May 23, 2001.
Science, October 10, 1997, p. 227.
ScienceNOW, November 10, 1997; February 11, 1998.
Washington Monthly, January 2003, p. 35.
Washington Post, June 28, 1988; December 19, 1994; May 21, 1997, p. C24; September 20, 2005, p. A23.
"Susan Blumenthal," Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau, www.leadingauthorities.com/24023/Susan_Blumenthal.htm (February 9, 2007).
"Susan Blumenthal received 2005 Abram L. Sachar Silver Medallion," Brandeis University, http://my.brandeis.edu/news/item?news_item_id=103839&show_release_date=1 (February 25, 2007).