In sad news, Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former leader of the medical assistance push domestically and abroad has passed away at the age of 67 and is survived by her husband, also a doctor, and daughter. Healy was the first woman to head up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and later commanded American Red Cross relief efforts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The cause was brain cancer.

Healy studied the pathology of heart attacks, and became the first woman assistant dean for postdoctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University in addition to being professor of medicine since 1982. She left Hopkins in 1984 to serve as a deputy science advisor to President Reagan. A seriously dedicated Republican, she reluctantly stepped down from the directorship when the Clinton administration came in and later became dean of the medical school at Ohio State University.

Healy took over the National Institutes of Health in 1991 and weeks into her tenure announced the creation of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). A $625-million study involving 150,000 women, it was the largest government clinical trial of women’s health in the nation’s history.

The Women’s Health Initiative was a long-term national health study that focused on strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer and osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. These chronic diseases are the major causes of death, disability and frailty in older women of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

This multi-million dollar, 15-year project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), involved 161,808 women aged 50-79, and was one of the most definitive, far reaching clinical trials of women’s health ever undertaken in the U.S. The WHI Clinical Trial and Observational Study attempted to address many of the inequities in women’s health research and provide practical information to women and their physicians about hormone therapy, dietary patterns and calcium/vitamin D supplements, and their effects on the prevention of heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health commented:

“She championed the principle that women’s health could not simply be inferred by extrapolation from studies on men. As a result, today we have seen major advances in the understanding of how women and their healthcare providers can better prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and a host of other conditions.”

In 1999, she became president of the American Red Cross, and only the second woman to lead the organization before resigning two years later after conflicts with the board over the organization’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, particularly over how to allocate the millions of dollars in donations from the public for victims and in particular the $500 million donated to a special Liberty Fund she established after Sept. 11, 2001.

Some board members wanted to use some of the funds on programs not related to its 9/11 relief efforts, and many donors were upset that emergency grants to 9/11 victims did not take financial need into account. She also objected to a proposal to stop withholding dues to the International Red Cross because it excluded the Israeli branch from membership.

Written by Sy Kraft