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Opinion Americans may have the war in Vietnam to thank for Dr. Fauci

Anthony S. Fauci is one of the leading experts of the coronavirus task force. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Ray Greenberg is a physician epidemiologist, former executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and the author of "Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Nobel Careers.”

Americans may have the war in Vietnam to thank for Anthony S. Fauci.

An adviser to six presidents and now the trusted public face of the scientific response to the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci has worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for more than a half-century — beginning in 1968 with a group of doctors cheekily known as Yellow Berets.

During the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the U.S. military faced a pressing need for physicians. In 1966, during Fauci’s senior year at Cornell University Medical College, a military recruiter came to tell the assembled students: “After you finish medical school, every one of you except the two women will either be in the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, or the Public Health Service.” The last option, entering the Public Health Service, entailed assignment at the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control or the Indian Health Service.

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Those who were selected to serve at the NIH were known officially as clinical associates, but informally they were referred to as Yellow Berets. Whether the designation was born in jest or derision, it was intended as a foil to the Green Berets of the Army Special Forces. Fauci never liked the label because it implied an unwillingness to serve in harm’s way. “As a physician,” Fauci said, “I felt if I had to go [to Vietnam], I would gladly do my part to try to help.”

The competition for the limited number of Yellow Beret slots was so intense that only the best and brightest young physicians were selected. Fauci, the top graduate in his medical school class, was one of seven chosen from 140 applicants to train in his laboratory of interest. As described in my book “Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Medical Careers,” the class of Yellow Berets that entered with Fauci included four future Nobel laureates: Joseph Goldstein, Michael Brown, Harold Varmus and Robert Lefkowitz.

Each new appointee completed two years of clinical training before arriving at the NIH. Their primary responsibility was learning how to conduct basic research under the guidance of a senior scientist. The second job was to care for patients at the NIH Clinical Center. Fauci and his fellow infectious disease colleagues also helped to care for wounded service members at the nearby National Naval Medical Center.

Fauci, who had some research experience in medical school, trained at the NIH for three years under the tutelage of Sheldon Wolff — a pioneer in the relationship between the immune system and infectious diseases. Following a year of additional clinical training back in New York, Fauci returned to the NIH as a senior scientist conducting pioneering work, first on autoimmune conditions, then transitioning to study the newly emerging disease that would become known as AIDS.

When he entered the clinical associate program, Fauci’s ambition was to become a medical school professor. Had the Vietnam War not brought him to the NIH, Fauci probably would have remained in academia and the country never would have benefited from his extraordinary public service.

Instead, from his position as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has helped shape national policies related to HIV, bioterrorism and a series of pandemic threats including avian influenza, H1N1 (swine) influenza, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome. It is hard to imagine any other physician who has had such a sustained and profound impact on the health of our nation.

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While Fauci remained at the NIH for his entire professional career, most of his fellow Yellow Berets left Bethesda after their training was completed and headed for jobs at universities. Across the nation, the former Yellow Berets became medical school scientists, department chairs and deans. More than 60 former clinical associates, including Fauci, were elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and he also was one of the more than 125 Yellow Beret alumni elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine). In addition, Fauci was one of 10 alumni to receive the National Medal of Science.

For all the scars left by the Vietnam War, we should not overlook the fact that in its absence, 50 years later the country would probably not have Anthony Fauci guiding us through our current crisis. Dr. Fauci, we salute you and your fellow Yellow Berets.

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