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Dr. Bernadine Healy

Year of Birth / Death

1944 - 2011

Medical School

Harvard Medical School


District of Columbia

Career Path

Internal medicine: Cardiology
Public health: Government
Administration: Medical school deans
Dr. Bernadine Healy


Dr. Bernadine Healy was the first woman to direct the National Institutes of Health.


To use what I saw—as a 12-year-old girl—my God-given talents to help someone. Medicine seemed to me to be the most noble of endeavors.


Cardiologist Bernadine Healy was a physician, educator, and health administrator who was the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Known for her outspoken, innovative policymaking, Dr. Healy was particularly effective in addressing medical policy and research pertaining to women.

The second of four daughters, Bernadine Healy was born in 1944 and grew up in Long Island City, New York. Her parents, second-generation Irish Americans, operated a small perfume business from the basement of their home. Both parents were raised by widowed mothers, which meant that they had had to quit high school and go to work to help support their families. Their experiences shaped their attitude toward education for their own children. Mr. Healy encouraged his girls to aim high, and to view education as a route to financial security. At age 12, having abandoned her ambition to become a nun, Bernadine Healy decided on a career in medicine. Her father defied the Catholic Church when he moved Healy from the parochial school and sent her to the prestigious Hunter College High School in Manhattan. A priest cautioned him that she would be reading books such as War and Peace, that she might become overeducated, and that she would consequently would abandon motherhood and her traditional role as a woman. Healy graduated first in her class at Hunter, went on to Vassar where she graduated summa cum laude, earned her M.D. at Harvard Medical School, and completed her training in internal medicine and cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

After completing her internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Dr. Healy spent two years at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health before returning to Hopkins in 1976, where she became a professor of medicine. She earned a reputation as a skilled cardiovascular researcher specializing in the pathology of heart attacks. She also became the school's first woman to serve as assistant dean for postdoctoral programs and faculty development.

In 1984 President Ronald Reagan appointed Healy deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Policy. In 1985 she was appointed chair of the Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation where she directed the research programs of nine departments. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush appointed her director of the National Institutes of Health. She later served as dean of Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health and professor of medicine from 1995 to 1999.

When Dr. Healy made her debut as director of the National Institutes of Health, she joked, "Things are so bad, some have said, they couldn't even get a man to be NIH director." At that time, the National Institutes of Health was an agency beset with problems. It was thought to be in decline and scientists were leaving in record numbers. The agency had also been accused of sexism and racism in hiring and promotion. The NIH has been without a director for almost two years, and Dr. Healy's appointment was viewed especially positively by many because of her experience in dealing with science policy issues.

While she was at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Healy undertook a number of initiatives. She established an award program to keep talented scientists working within the grant system during funding lapses, oversaw the development of a major intramural genetics laboratory and an Institute for Nursing Research, and launched the $625 million Women's Health Initiative (a long-term health study involving 150,000 women). In the interests of better understanding the different ways disease and treatment affect men and women, she also established a policy whereby the National Institutes of Health would fund only those clinical trials that included both men and women when the condition being studied affected both sexes.

As president of the American Heart Association from 1998 to 1999, 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. Healy set out to convince both the lay and medical sectors that heart disease is also a woman's disease, "not a man's disease in disguise."

While at the American Red Cross, Healy worked to upgrade blood services, develop and execute a strategic plan for organizational integration and human capital development, recruited staff from government and industry, and expanded bilateral and multi-lateral international work in Africa, India, and Turkey. Dr. Healy led the American Red Cross response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These efforts included recovery and response work in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, and creation of a $200 million family grant program for victim's families, grieving and healing programs in chapters throughout the country, international response for the families of foreign nationals caught in the disaster, and the initiation of a strategic blood reserve from "extra" blood collections.

An author as well as a policymaker and manager, Dr. Healy wrote or co-authored more than 220 peer-reviewed manuscripts on cardiovascular research and health and science policy. In addition to her various administrative positions, she also continued to treat patients during much of her career. Her research has led to deeper understanding of the pathology and treatment of heart attacks, especially in women.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Getting into medical school at a time when women were seen as an exceptional and questionable addition to the profession. That made me more determined, more studious, and in the long run, probably more successful.

How do I make a difference?

Professionally I am proud that I never compromised my core beliefs, never wobbled on what I believed to be the right path, and had the strength to endure both. My contributions on women's health and well-being including the Women's Health Initiative, which I envisioned and launched while at the National Institutes of Health, have brought me deep satisfaction—and were not always easy, especially back in the 1970s when such interests were seen as too expansive. My work in cardiology has always given me a quiet sense of pride as well as the creativity I think I was able to bring to my leadership posts.

Who was my mentor?

My dear father Michael Healy—who had to go to work (in a pencil factory) instead of going to high school—supported me in my desire to become a doctor. I was inspired by the book The Nun's Story. Dad passed away twenty-two years ago, but still influences me.

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