Bernadine Healy, the accomplished and controversial first female director of the National Institutes of Health and past president of the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross, died Aug. 6 of a recurrence of brain cancer at her home in Gates Mills, Ohio. She was 67.
Dr. Healy, a cardiologist, helped turn around a fractured, underfunded and under-fire NIH in the early 1990s. Her most notable accomplishment there was launching the Women’s Health Initiative, a $500 million, 10-year study of diseases that affect women at midlife and beyond. The study revealed previously undiscovered dangers to women’s health, such as the risks of heart attacks and strokes in post-menopausal women.
In the late 1990s, she was hired as a change agent at the notoriously change-resistant Red Cross.
She was forced out of that job after two years, after a series of differences with longtime board members who objected to her assertive, sometimes steely style and to their loss of control over day-to-day decision-making.
She endured public outrage against the humanitarian organization’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
On Sept. 11, Dr. Healy learned that the Red Cross’s disaster operations unit had failed to send a full response team to the Pentagon. She had her assistant order a full response, but, upon finding few workers there when she visited the Pentagon that night, she fired the longtime employees in charge of the response.
A public uproar also ensued when donors who gave money for Sept. 11 victims realized that all the funds would not be restricted solely to victims of the terrorist attacks. The Red Cross was forced to change its long-standing policy because of the outcry.
Dr. Healy’s fate was sealed with the Red Cross board.
“Maybe you wanted more of a Mary Poppins and less of a Jack Welch,” she said in a letter to the board a few days after her resignation announcement.
Dr. Healy had been called many names, but never Mary Poppins. From “short-tempered diva of biomedical research” to “one of the finest leaders the Red Cross has ever had,” the outspoken physician triggered passionate reactions.
She crossed words with powerful congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Nobel laureate James Watson, she challenged the NIH’s Office of Scientific Integrity, and she essentially accused the International Red Cross of anti-Semitism for its exclusion of the Israeli version of the Red Cross.
A Republican and feminist, Dr. Healy said she never fit into the old-boys network of government or academia. While a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school in 1982, she took to task the all-male eating society, the Pithotomy Club, for a sexist and pornographic skit that targeted her.
She had to threaten a lawsuit before getting a face-to-face meeting with the club’s officers, she later told The Washington Post. “I was one of the leaders of that institution,” she said. “But after that episode I would go in a room and there were different vibrations. It did not make me popular.”
Bernadine Patricia Healy was born in New York City on Aug. 2, 1944. She was one of four daughters of Michael J. and Violet McGrath Healy, second-generation Irish Americans who owned a small perfume business in their basement. Bernadine thought at first of becoming a nun, until her father pointed out that she’d have to take orders from a priest. At age 12, she switched her career goal to medicine.
She graduated from Vassar College on a full scholarship, then became one of 10 women in a class of 120 at Harvard Medical School, earning a medical degree in 1970.
She completed her internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore and spent two years at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute before returning to Johns Hopkins as a faculty member. She married another faculty member, Dr. George Bulkley. They later divorced.
President Ronald Reagan named Dr. Healy deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1984. The next year, she became chairman of the Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where she met her second husband, Dr. Floyd D. Loop.
Besides her husband, of Gates Mills, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Bartlett Anne Russell of Washington, and a daughter from her second marriage, Marie McGrath Loop of Gates Mills.
When President George H.W. Bush recalled Dr. Healy to Washington in 1991, she joked that “things are so bad, some have said, they couldn’t even get a man to be NIH director.”
The agency had been without a permanent director for 20 months, scientists were leaving in record numbers because of low pay and lower morale, the politicization of scientific agendas worried many, congressional investigations into allegations of misconduct were underway, and accusations of sexism and racism pervaded the hiring and promotion process.
The NIH governance was balkanized as well, and Dr. Healy quickly began planning a reorganization and setting research priorities. She established an award program to try to keep talented scientists who were being lured away for better pay in the private sector, oversaw the development of a major intramural genetics laboratory and set up what is now the National Institute of Nursing Research.
Dr. Healy lived for many years in Washington, commuting on weekends to be with her family in Cleveland. When the Clinton administration failed to reappoint her at the NIH, she became medical dean at Ohio State University. She ran unsuccessfully for Ohio’s Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
As president of the American Heart Association in 1998, she initiated programs for women and minorities. She received a brain tumor diagnosis that year and recovered after surgery and chemotherapy.
Dr. Healy was recruited to run the American Red Cross in 1999, at twice the salary of her predecessor, Elizabeth Dole. She quickly found that her decision-making, so apt in an emergency room or surgical theater, ruffled the feathers of the 50-member Red Cross board, which had gotten used to being a loose confederation rather than a tightly knit, centralized organization.
Five months after she took over, the FDA found violations in how the Red Cross handled its blood supply, at the headquarters itself.
After leaving the agency at the end of 2001, Dr. Healy worked as a TV health commentator and columnist for U.S. News and World Report, and she wrote two books, including a chronicle of her fight against brain cancer.
“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,” she said for an NIH biography project.