The Bernadine Healy Card

31 May

Last month, ex NIH leader, Bernadine Healy came out of her semi-retirement to weigh in on the autism/vaccine hypothesis:

….the rise of this disorder, which shows up before age 3, happens to coincide with the increased number and type of vaccine shots in the first few years of life. So as a trigger, vaccines carry a ring of both historical and biological plausibility.

It was a credulous article designed, I suspect, to have a bit of a snipe at HHS – currently embroiled in the Autism Omnibus. Why do I say that?

Well, being a UK citizen I’d never heard of Bernadine Healy so I did a bit of looking around to see if I could adequately explain to myself why such a luminary would say such plainly silly and unscientific things.

It seems that:

on 10 Feb [1993], Healy, who is known for her bluntness, went to her new boss, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Donna Shalala and asked about her future. Shalala apparently matched Healy for bluntness. “She let me know it wouldn’t work out in the long term.” Said Healy.

So possibly there is some lingering resentment towards HHS. Who knows. It seems doubtful that this would entirely (if at all) explain Healy’s decision to parrot pseudo-science but – people do silly things sometimes.

What I found fascinating was that this is not the first time Healy has taken an active role in direct opposition to science and the scientific process:

…..patients are forced into a one-size-fits-all straitjacket…..EBM [evidence based medicine] carries its own ideological and political agenda separate from its clinical purpose.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and former director of the National Institutes of Health, falsely claimed that “several” neurologists who “evaluated” Terri Schiavo determined that she had “a functional mind” and was “minimally conscious.”

Dr Bernadine Healey, former director of the National Institute of Health said, “Blenderizing these diverse trials into one giant 232,606-patient-strong study to come up with a seductively simple proclamation is just silly….”

That latter was Healy’s attack on a study that highlighted the dangers of vitamins.

So we can see that Healy has a history that is peppered with leanings toward a credulous approach.

It also seems that she is first and foremost a politician, willing to sacrifice her scientific credibility to support her party (she is a Republican):

Healy was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991….when Healy assumed control, the agency was beset with problems…..[s]cientists were leaving in record numbers because of…..politicization of scientific agendas (a prime example was the ban on fetal-tissue research because the Republican administration believed it encouraged abortion)

Healy had, at that time expressed support for fetal-tissue research:

….she had been a member of a panel that advised continuation of fetal-tissue research, her appointment was also seen as a move away from politicized science.

So, it must’ve come as something of a shock to NIH scientists when:

….she lobbied against overturning the Bush Administration’s ban on fetal tissue research, despite her previous support for such research.

She also had to defend herself against charges of mishandling a scientific misconduct case:

Healy demanded that OSI (like internal affairs for the NIH) rewrite a draft report that found misconduct on the part of Popovic. The OSI report also severely criticized Gallo.

“When her order for a rewrite was refused, Dr. Healy replaced the chief investigator [Suzanne Hadley] with one more malleable,” the subcommittee report said. The resulting OSI report was “watered down,” the subcommittee document said.


In 1992, the National Academy of Sciences’ panel completed its investigation and produced a report critical of Gallo.

Healy chose to ignore the findings of the NAS panel and commissioned her own ad hoc committee of top NIH scientists, whom she called her “wise men,” the report said. Healy required the members to sign a secrecy agreement.

(Full story also here).

Maybe the biggest question mark against Healy’s scientific credibility and ability to be impartial as this. She was a member of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition:

The Advancement of Sound Science Center (TASSC), formerly the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, is an industry-funded lobby group which promotes the idea that environmental science on issues including smoking, pesticides and global warming is “junk science”, which should be replaced by “sound science”.

Notably, TASSC promote the interests of tobacco companies:

Initially, the primary focus of TASSC was an attempt to discredit research on Environmental Tobacco Smoke [passive smoking] as a long-term cause of increased cancer and heart problem rates in the community — especially among office workers and children living with smoking parents. It subsequently advanced industry-friendly positions on a wide range of topics, including global warming, smoking, phthalates, and pesticides. Later still, they extended the role of TASSC to Europe using Dr George Carlo. TASSC used the label of ‘junk science’ to criticise work that was unfavorable to the interests of its backers.

TASSC’s funders included:

Dow Chemical
General Motors
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Lorillard Tobacco
Louisiana Chemical Association
National Pest Control Association
Occidental Petroleum
Philip Morris
Procter & Gamble
Santa Fe Pacific Gold
W.R. Grace

More can be found here.

So, all in all, I am disposed to not trust the words, or ‘beliefs’ of Bernadine Healy very much. Anyone who campaigns against the dangers of passive smoking to children or who is prepared to block science they allegedly once supported when it is politically expedient doesn’t seem that good a judge of what constitutes good science.

14 Responses to “The Bernadine Healy Card”

  1. Broken Link May 31, 2008 at 01:32 #

    Sounds like it’s time for an edit of the wikipedia bio of this woman. The bio is not complete.

  2. Schwartz May 31, 2008 at 02:05 #


    The EBM comment by Healy is a widely acknowledged weakness of EBM and hardly a rebellious point of view. It is certainly not anti-science as you state.

    Just a quick sample: “It has been observed that with the gradual increase of cost constraints, there is a reduction in the frequency with which the best option for a population matches that for individual patients”

    Granata AV, Hillman AL. Competing practice guidelines: using cost-effectiveness analysis to make optimal decisions. Ann Intern Med 1998;128:56-63

    In your next quote (the ever scientific news site MediaMatters for America) article complaining about her Shiavo statements itself needed correction as it wrongly accused one of the doctors of having been disciplined. Did you actually look at that site and consider it credible? They have a direct link to Rush Limbaugh on the front page as a Hot Article link.

    You conveniently ommit the context in your last quote of her:
    “The headlines that these supplements significantly increase the risk of death by 5 percent overall came only when the researchers pulled out the 47 trials they deemed to have been the best executed. Actually, in the 21 randomized trials they peeled off, mortality was decreased by 9 percent among those taking the vitamins.”

    Doesn’t sound so unscientific in context to me. Especially when you read the whole article it’s coming from. The complaint here is a discussion of the methodological flaws around a single META study that contradicted most other studies on the topic. Your specific interpretation of this is very biased. Her referencing of the specifics is also hardly un-scientific. Certainly more scientific than your editorial argument and quote out of context.

    Moving on, it is interesting that you would post all of the issues with the NIH when she took over yet would support Gerbinger as head of CDC overseeing the exact same issues today? A bit of hypocracy no?

    The last few quotes are fascinating and pertinent to say the least. One has to wonder why she would suddenly deviate from her former habits of towing the Republican political line and blindly supporting the industry especially since she’s going directly against the current Republican establishment.

    Maybe she wisened up in her older age…

  3. Joseph May 31, 2008 at 02:39 #

    Let me get this straight. She cites a coincidental trend and anecdotal evidence as justification to give credence to the hypothesis that vaccines trigger autism. But when presented with a large meta-study claiming to find that there are risks to vitamins, she completely doubts its results.

    There’s clearly something odd about that.

  4. Ms. Clark May 31, 2008 at 03:15 #

    Sorry, but who is “Gerbinger”?

  5. Kev May 31, 2008 at 07:28 #

    Hi Schwartz,

    I’m not exactly sure who Rush Limbaugh is. I recall the name but I can’t recall under what circumstances.

    Assuming you’re referring to the current CDC chief, I’m not sure I would support her directly. I think she’s said the right things on autism, pretty much (from what I’ve read) beyond that, I don’t really know much about her.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying she’s wisened up about – not the tobacco stuff, surely.

  6. Maya M May 31, 2008 at 13:07 #

    Healy doesn’t seem to me quite an authority in scientific/medical matters, but at least I sympathize with her stand about Terri Schiavo.
    It is sooooo easy to deprive someone of human status and kill him just because he is unable to communicate.

  7. Orac May 31, 2008 at 13:28 #

    The EBM comment by Healy is a widely acknowledged weakness of EBM and hardly a rebellious point of view. It is certainly not anti-science as you state.

    Nope. Wrong. Healy took a criticism of EBM and turned it into crankery. She uncritically parroted a truly over-the-top “criticism” of EBM that likened it to “microfascism.” The American Association of Physicians and Scientists, a crank organization, loved it.

    No, Healy has apparently gone off the deep end in recent years.

  8. Kev May 31, 2008 at 14:49 #

    No surprise AAPS liked it. ‘Microfacism’ eh? One step away from a rather silly conspiracy theory.

    You may (well, Orac might, you more recent readers might not 😉 ) recall a Daily Mail story featuring Peter Fletcher I blogged about two and a bit years ago. This strikes me as similar to that. A retired former ‘high up’ talking rubbish about science.

    An effort to to regain the public eye perhaps?

  9. alyric May 31, 2008 at 17:10 #

    Also she was sacked as head of the Red Cross for apparently mishandling blood donations post 9/11. She is mostly a politician it seems.

    Not being US based I’ve often wondered why some really weird people get to run very important organisations. NIH is certainly one but there’s Thomas Insel of NIMH as well and his series of crass motherhood statements in the New York Mag article were embarassing.

    It night be fine for a politician to be able to do the social dance beautifully but surely there should be some minimal competence standards as well if the organisations they run are as important as these are.

  10. Schwartz May 31, 2008 at 22:57 #


    I keep forgetting you’re from the UK. Rush Limbaugh is a right wing political commentator in the US and has a controversial past.


    Your literary accuracy is up to your usually standards. That statement is wrong because she’s a crank? Great logic. I pulled that quote not from her, but from one of many peer-reviewed articles on the topic of EBM. The same criticism can be found in textbooks on the topic. Or do you wish to imply that EBM is perfect and without flaws?


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