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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Bernadine Healy’s Career Blazed a Path for Women and for Women’s Health

When Bernadine Healy entered Harvard Medical School, her class included 9 other women and more than 100 men.  When she joined the Johns Hopkins cardiology faculty, she was the first women named to a full-time position.  When President George H.W. Bush appointed her director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, she was the first woman to hold that post. Healy’s pioneering career ended on Saturday with her death, at age 67, of brain cancer. 

The posts cited above are only a few of the distinguished positions that crowded the resume of a woman who began by earning both her college (summa cum laude at Vassar) and medical degrees on full academic scholarships.  She also served as president of the American Heart Association, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, chair of the Cleveland Clinic Research Institute, and dean of the Ohio State University medical school.  In addition, she practiced cardiology, did research of her own, and even ran for the United States Senate.  

During her tenure at NIH, she established the Women’s Health Initiative, the massive study of illness in adult women that, among many other important findings, revealed the harmful effects of combination hormone replacement therapy (HRT) . This resulted in a huge drop in the use of HRT and a subsequent drop in breast cancer rates. The study represented the first major effort to examine health issues specific to adult women that were not involved with reproduction. Earlier, at the Heart Association, she had urged the medical profession to recognize heart disease as a major threat to women as well as men.

Just as she endeavored to remedy discrimination in medical research and treatment, she staunchly refused to countenance other forms of inequity.  She changed her childhood ambition from being a nun to being doctor because, the Washington Post reports, her father told her that nuns had to follow the dictates of priests.  In an incident that became an emblem of sexual harassment and reportedly led to her leaving Hopkins, she challenged the sexism of a medical fraternity that had portrayed her in an offensive manner in a skit. She demanded that the International Society of the Red Cross and Red Crescent admit Israel’s Red Cross equivalent, the Red Star of David, which had been denied admission for decades on the ostensible grounds that it would not adopt one of the required organizational emblems.
None of this earned Healy a reputation as warm and fuzzy, and she suffered the critisism for harshness and bossiness that, research has shown, dogs many highly competent and powerful women. But regardless of her leadership style, through her exemplary career, immense talents, strong stands, broad vision, and astounding capacity for hard work, she left her profession, medicine, and much else far better than she found them.

Also see the post on Healy’s death on our sister blog, ScienceInsider