A short biography of Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The scientist of old cliché is a solitary, driven soul, laboring in isolation, far from the madding crowd. But human progress, as Galileo knew, is better served by a scientist who can walk the halls of power and spur the curiosity of a king. Few understand Galileo's instinct as well as Harold Varmus, who, as director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993-99, won Congress's attention, doubled the NIH's operating budget, and stimulated unparalleled growth. Like Galileo, he knows what it takes to kindle science.

He grew up thinking he would be a writer. Born in Oceanside, N.Y., and raised in Freeport, he was a bookish child. His mother was a psychiatric social worker, his father "a Marcus Welby type" family doctor. Both were children of immigrants: she, of Austrian roots; he from a family of Poles. Educated at Wellesley and Harvard, they were "enlightened readers, although not particularly passionate about books." The boy found inspiration at his local library, "which, in time, became my second home."

At school, teachers told him he had a way with words, the praise so convincing that he decided he had a future in English. "My ideal summer day," he says, "was reading on the porch." At first, the books were biographies of explorers, composers, scientists. By high school, they were "Gone With the Wind," "David Copperfield." At Amherst, he became interested in Victorian novelists. At Harvard graduate school, he did an M.A. thesis on how real life intruded in Dickens's work. But somewhere between a stint in a missionary hospital in India and his opposition to the Vietnam War, he chose medicine.

The rest of Varmus's life is on the record: He worked with J. Michael Bishop at the University of California at San Francisco and earned a Nobel Prize for research on genes that cause cancer. After heading the NIH, he went on to become president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Last year, he published "The Art and Politics of Science." Just this July, President Obama named him director of the National Cancer Institute.

And yet in his spare time -- when he isn't bicycling from Cleveland Park, where he lives, to Bethesda, where he works -- he reads Richard Holmes, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen.

Science, like fiction, Varmus says, "is full of ferment and drama." The theories that strive to explain how cells become cancerous are highly competitive, as pitted against one another as life and death. If Galileo were alive today, he would understand Varmus's point. Exactly 400 years ago, Galileo dared to say that the sun was at the center of the universe. Just weeks ago, Varmus began his NCI tenure by saying that gene-based therapies may be the way to treat cancer.

Science and literature do have a way of making you turn the page.

-- Marie Arana

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