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Women Scientist Profiles

Bernadine Healy, M.D.

Bernadine Healy, M.D.

From her work as a cardiologist to her pioneering role at the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, M.D., will long be remembered as a champion for women’s health who changed the way the medical profession viewed heart disease.

Dr. Healy received her medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1970, one of 10 women in a class of 120. She completed training in cardiology at Johns Hopkins University. After two years at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, she joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins as the first woman in the cardiology division.

In 1988 she became president of the American Heart Association. Although the leading killer of both women and men, research on cardiovascular disease in women was lacking. “The problem is to convince both the lay and medical sectors that coronary heart disease is also a women’s disease, not a man’s disease in disguise,” Dr. Healy wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991.

That year Dr. Healy became the first women to head the NIH. Less than a month after becoming director, she introduced the Women’s Health Initiative to Congress, describing it as a “moon walk for women”. The $625 million research program greatly advanced our knowledge of women’s health in middle age and beyond. Research from the Women’s Health Initiative showed that combined hormone replacement therapy, used to treat the symptoms of menopause, increased the risk for invasive breast cancer and heart disease.

While at the NIH, Dr. Healy drew from her experience in science policy, as a deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Policy in the 1980s, to set a new course for the Institutes. She mandated that NIH-funded clinical trials include women if the disease affected both genders. In 1992, Dr. Healy launched the Minority Health Initiative to promote research on diseases that disproportionately affect minorities. She also supported increasing minorities in the sciences. That year she spoke of the need for increased diversity at the National Conference on Diversity in the Scientific and Technological Workforce:

“If Albert Einstein had been born a Hispanic woman, would we have recognized her genius? If Jonas Salk were an African American man, would the discovery of a polio vaccine have been delayed? … At what price do we deny or delay their opportunity to contribute?”

As director in the early days of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Healy recruited new scientists, including current NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, to head the project. She established a grant program to retain talented scientists during lapses in larger grants and formed the National Institute of Nursing Research.

Dr. Healy went on to serve as dean for Ohio State University’s College of Medicine. Recognizing the importance of prevention, she expanded the school into the College of Medicine and Public Health. As a result of Dr. Healy’s work, the college was designated a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. In 1999, Dr. Healy was named president of the American Red Cross, where she oversaw relief efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In her later life, Dr. Healy became a vital bridge to the general public on health and medical issues. She was a TV commentator on CBS News and PBS-TV and a health columnist for U.S. News and World Report for more than a decade. She wrote on a wide range of health issues in her columns and several books, including candidly about her fight with brain cancer, which took her life in 2011. Her columns, like her life, inspired and empowered countless women and men.


This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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