Politics

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 365

This is the grave of Bernandine Healy.

Born in 1944, Healy went to Vassar College, graduating as a chemistry major in 1965. She then went to Harvard Medical School and then onto residency at Johns Hopkins. She was the first woman to become a full-time faculty member in the cardiology department at Hopkins. She headed the coronary care unit there for eight years, publicized the history of women in medicine through talks and conferences. She also fought the culture of sexual harassment at that school. Later in her career, she went at the Cleveland Clinic, engaged in some of the nation’s most important heart research, getting major grants comparing using angioplasty versus open heart surgery.

Unfortunately, Healy had some character flaws. First, she was an early believer in the connection between vaccines and autism, giving a 2004 interview on CBS claiming a government conspiracy to prevent this research from coming out, leading to the Age of Autism giving her their 2008 Person of the Year award. That’s pretty unforgivable.

Healy was also an influential Republican. Reagan named her deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and was overall one of the Reagan administration’s top medicine and science advisers. Kindly Old Moderate George Bush named Healy as the first female director of the National Institute of Health, where she played a major role in creating the Human Genome Project. To her credit, she did good work at NIH on championing women’s health, especially focusing on women’s heart disease, challenging a public perception that heart disease was primarily a male problem.

Now, much of the service work of this pioneering female doctor was not inherently political, but then sometimes it was. In 2001, she was the head of the Red Cross and she caused a huge uproar by saying that the U.S. Red Cross should withhold funding from the international Red Cross for not supporting the Israeli Red Cross. Combined with a supposedly vicious managerial style that made her a lot of enemies (although how much the response to her was just pure sexism remains unknown) and problems with the agency’s response to 9/11 and she was forced out at the end of that year. She also ran for the open Ohio Senate seat in 1994, finishing second in the Republican Primary to Mike DeWine.

Healy died of brain cancer in 2011. She was 67 years old. Ultimately, a pretty interesting pioneering doctor who sacrificed much of her own credibility on a garbage conspiracy theory that has hurt so many children.

Bernandine Healy is buried in Tippecanoe Memory Gardens, West Lafayette, Indiana.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions, for which I am eternally grateful. If you would like this series to visit more female doctors, you can donate here to cover the required expenses. Ann Preston is in Philadelphia, while Rebecca Crumpler is in Boston. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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