A brilliant but controversial cardiologist who headed the National Institutes of Health during the Bush administration will become the first medical doctor to lead the American Red Cross, the organization announced with coronation-like fanfare yesterday.
Bernadine Healy, dean of the college of medicine and public health at Ohio State University and a medical consultant for CBS News, will become president of the gigantic nonprofit effective Sept. 1, succeeding Republican presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, who stepped down this year.
Healy, who made an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1994, said she will immediately begin the transition into her job at the Red Cross, the nation's largest supplier of blood and its biggest disaster relief agency. Founded in 1881 by civil war nurse Clara Barton, the charity has an annual budget of $2.3 billion, a payroll with 32,500 employees and oversight responsibility for 1.3 million volunteers.
Healy said she hopes Barton, "that determined, diligent, strong-hearted nurse," will look down on her in the future and say, "Not bad for a doctor."
Healy's appointment was hailed by many yesterday, including competitors in the blood collection field. Jim McPherson, executive director of America's Blood Centers, said Dole had turned collection into a competition and had squashed previous joint public service announcements and other efforts to increase donations. A physician who understands the critical need for blood, McPherson said, will likely be more cooperative.
But some who knew Healy during her tenure at NIH were less enthusiastic. Describing her departure from the agency in 1993, one former colleague recalled, "When she left, there was many a dry eye."
Some scientists at NIH chafed under what they saw as Healy's top-down management style. Others were angered by her public support of President George Bush's ban on fetal tissue research. She also clashed with the then-head of the Human Genome Project, who like many scientists believed that genetic discoveries should remain in the public domain. Healy argued that investigators should be able to claim a patent on a gene as soon as they had identified a sequence, a view shared by some corporations hoping to profit from gene research.
Healy was condemned by some but praised by others for repeatedly tangling with Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a combative committee chairman and perennial NIH watchdog. Dingell staff aides called her "a female John Sununu," in a reference to the presidential aide widely considered arrogant and abrasive.
Healy also was the topic of complaints during her failed 1994 Senate bid. During the GOP primary in Ohio, she got into trouble with the party for using a fund-raising list that was supposed to be reserved for the general election.
But much of the criticism Healy has received can be attributed to egotistical men who prefer women to be quiet and reserved, said Eric Topol, chairman of the department of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where Healy chaired the Research Institute before her appointment to NIH.
"Women in medicine have had a tough fight," Topol said. "She had many pivotal leadership roles even in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was unprecedented."
Healy was the first female director of the NIH and the first named a science adviser to the White House. She fought for years to have more women included in medical studies, a battle she took up with ferocity on arrival at NIH.
Healy, Topol said, is a "dynamo, rich with ideas, remarkably creative, an extraordinary leader. She can process information and articulate ideas as well as anyone in the public eye today."
Her tenacity is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that she is taking on a major new challenge at age 54, only five months after ungoing surgery for a brain tumor.
Topol said the tumor is rare but very treatable. Red Cross officials said that Healy, a mother of two daughters, has a "clean bill of health."
A spokesman declined to discuss her salary at this time, saying that "the compensation package has been agreed on, but not finalized." Her predecessor, Dole, was paid a salary of $200,000.
Unlike Dole, who spent much of her tenure on the road giving paid speeches, Healy said she did not anticipate making paid appearances.
Healy also said that while she will continue to express her strong political views around the dinner table, she won't talk about them in public anymore. Her new job, she said in an interview after her speech to Red Cross employees here, requires "neutrality and impartiality."
Staff writer Rick Weiss contributed to this report.
CAPTION: First doctor to head relief agency, Bernadine Healy addresses workers here.