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.”