Bernadine P. Healy, a Pioneer at National Institutes of Health, Dies at 67

Published: August 8, 2011

Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, the first woman to lead the National Institutes of Health and the first physician to lead the American Red Cross until she was forced out in a storm of criticism over flawed responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, died on Saturday at her home in Gates Mills, Ohio. She was 67.

The cause was recurring brain cancer, which she had battled for 13 years, her husband, Dr. Floyd D. Loop, said.

In a hybrid career in the largely male domains of medicine and government, Dr. Healy — a cardiologist and feminist — was a professor at Johns Hopkins University, dean of the Ohio State University medical school, a White House science adviser and president of the American Heart Association. She wrote scientific papers and magazine columns, and once ran for the United States Senate.

But she was best known as a tough, innovative administrator who, as director of the National Institutes of Health from 1991 to 1993, championed studies that overturned false assumptions about women’s health. And as president of the American Red Cross from 1999 to 2001, she struggled to coordinate its complex, often contradictory missions of humanitarian disaster relief and the businesslike maintenance of blood supplies.

Dr. Healy’s résumé was a compendium of academic and professional achievements that in its cold detail omitted a central fact: her relentless attack on the misperception that heart attacks were men’s problems. Heart disease was by far the leading killer of American women, who accounted for nearly 40 percent of its victims. Women’s groups had long sought a greater focus on women’s coronary health, cancers and the role of hormonal changes and therapy.

Dr. Healy, who had pushed similar concerns within cardiology, went to Washington and made the issue her own.

“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. At the institutes of health, the country’s largest medical research organization, Dr. Healy, a Republican appointed by President George Bush, inherited a sprawling agency of 15,000 people. It had gone without a director for two years and was beset by bureaucratic infighting, political interference and declining morale.

“I am willing to go out on a limb, shake the tree and even take a few bruises,” she told reporters. “I’m not particularly concerned about being popular.”

Dr. Healy cracked the whip on bureaucrats, recruited new talent, expanded the Human Genome Project and reversed policies that, like the medical establishment, had focused largely on men’s health and virtually excluded women from clinical trials. She mandated the inclusion of women in trials wherever appropriate.

She began the Women’s Health Initiative, a $625 million study of the causes, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and cancer in middle-aged and older women. Long after her tenure, the initiative continued yielding important findings. In 2002, it found that prolonged estrogen-progestin hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women increased risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart attacks.

“Dr. Healy’s stubborn insistence that the N.I.H. concern itself with women’s health was not broadly supported at the time,” Anne M. Dranginis, an associate professor of biological sciences at St. John’s University, wrote in a 2002 Op-Ed article in The New York Times. “Had Dr. Healy not championed research on women’s health, how much longer would healthy women have been encouraged to take hormone drugs?”

Dr. Healy stepped down when President Bill Clinton named a new N.I.H. director in 1993.

Six years later, Dr. Healy faced even more daunting challenges at the Red Cross. While it was widely seen as an icon of humanitarian work, the organization was an unwieldy behemoth with 1,000 chapters, 1.2 million volunteers, 3,000 staff members and a $3 billion budget. It was also a house divided, with nonprofit disaster-relief on one side and, on the other, a blood business run like a corporation.

Recovering from a brain tumor as she took over, Dr. Healy found what she called “turf battles, gossip and very little teamwork.”

Correction: August 10, 2011

An obituary on Tuesday about Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, who led both the National Institutes of Health and the American Red Cross, misidentified the medical specialty of her husband, Dr. Floyd D. Loop. He is a cardiac surgeon, not a cardiologist.