By Megan O’Hern ~
A new archival collection, the Bernadine Healy Papers (1958–2010) is now available at the National Library of Medicine. Though she was a cardiologist by training and practice, Dr. Healy is most prominently known as the first woman Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A common theme woven through her career is advocacy of equality for women in health research, best characterized by Dr. Healy’s efforts to rebrand heart disease as no longer just a “man’s disease in disguise” and the establishment of the Women’s Health Initiative at NIH.
Dr. Healy was born in 1944 in Queens, New York. She was one of four daughters born to her blue-collar parents, neither of whom had high school diplomas. Dr. Healy herself was a gifted student. She attended the prestigious Hunter College High School in Manhattan and later Vassar College, where she graduated in three years, summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry and a minor in philosophy. In 1970, Dr. Healy earned her M.D. at Harvard Medical School, where she was one of only 10 women in a class of more than 120. Dr. Healy went on to complete her postgraduate training in internal medicine and cardiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
After spending two years as a researcher at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH, Dr. Healy returned to Johns Hopkins as a Professor of Medicine in 1974. While there, she organized the Mary Elizabeth Garrett Symposium on women and medicine to highlight the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in the medical profession. She also mounted a campaign against the Pithotomy Club, a men’s-only eating society in the Medical School. Dr. Healy accused the club of sexual harassment and lewdness in their portrayal of her in its yearly skit mocking the medical school faculty. Dr. Healy later reported that only one colleague, another woman, came to her defense.
Dr. Healy did not stay at Johns Hopkins much longer. In 1985, she was appointed chair of the Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation where she oversaw the research programs of nine different departments. At the Clinic, Dr. Healy established new research programs, most in the field of molecular biology. She also participated in a large NIH-funded research program to study hypertension and another to investigate coronary artery bypass graft surgery. While at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Healy concurrently served as volunteer president of the American Heart Association for 1988–1989. In this role, Dr. Healy furthered her cause for health research equality by initiating programs to study heart disease in women.
In 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Dr. Healy to be the first female Director of NIH. After her nomination was announced, Dr. Healy famously joked that “Things are so bad, some have said, they couldn’t even get a man to be NIH director.” At NIH, Dr. Healy helped establish greater medical research equality by mandating that any study that received NIH funding must include both men and women in clinical trials. She also launched the Women’s Health Initiative at NIH, a $625 million-dollar effort to combat the lack of research on postmenopausal women’s health and to seek causes, prevention, and cures for diseases affecting middle-aged women.
Dr. Healy returned to Ohio after resigning from the NIH in 1993. Shortly after, she announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination in Ohio’s 1994 Senate race. Dr. Healy did not win the May 1994 primary, coming in second place to former Ohio governor Mike DeWine. After ending her brief political career, Dr. Healy served as Dean of the Ohio State University School of Medicine between 1995–1999.
Dr. Healy left OSU to take up a post as President and CEO of the American Red Cross. While there, Dr. Healy led an initiative for a strategic and safe blood reserve amidst concerns about contamination from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of the brain disease commonly referred to as ‘mad cow’ disease. She held this post during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and presided over the creation of the Liberty Fund fundraising effort for victim’s families, the alleged mishandling of which would eventually force Dr. Healy’s resignation in December 2001.
In addition to each of these professional roles, Dr. Healy was a widely sought-after health commentator, notably as a medical consultant for many news outlets including CBS, PBS, and MSNBC, and as health editor for U.S. News & World Report where she authored a column “On Health” beginning in 2003. She was a prolific researcher and writer, authoring over 200 academic research articles on cardiology and health policy and two books. Dr. Healy was also involved in policy-making through a variety of advisory roles. She was a member of the advisory committee to the NIH Director, the White House Science Council, the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the Office of Technology Assessment, and as an advisor on bioterrorism to President George W. Bush.
Dr. Healy died at her home in Gates Mills, Ohio on August 6, 2011 after a thirteen-year battle with brain cancer.
The Bernadine Healy Papers consists of 63 boxes of records which chronicle Dr. Healy’s career as a cardiologist, administrator, and policymaker through correspondence, subject files, briefing materials, speeches and presentations, published and draft writings, committee meeting minutes, reports, publicity, and audiovisual and photographic materials. Additionally, a digital archive of top web-searches for Dr. Healy is accessible online. Portions of the collection containing patient health information are accessible after receiving permission according to History of Medicine Division’s Access to Personally Identifiable Health Information policy.
Visit the National Library of Medicine to explore the Healy Papers in the History of Medicine Reading Room. For questions about this new archival collection, including how to consult it, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support.
Megan O’Hern is a Contract Archivist for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. She works for History Associates Inc.