R.I.P. Bernadine Healy

It came as a shock to me to find out yesterday that former director of the American Red Cross and former director of the NIH Bernadine Healy died. Chalk it up to my simply being ignorant of the fact, but I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that she had brain cancer. Interestingly, she had had this glioma and survived 13 years. Compare that to David Servan-Schreiber, who survived his brain tumor for 20 years and attributed much of it not just to medical science, but to all the woo he came to believe in and practice.

For purposes of this blog, the reason her death is even worth noting briefly is not so much because of her role as NIH director. Quite frankly, I thought she did a mediocre job at best at the time, nor was I particularly impressed by her tenure at the American Red Cross. Nor is it because of her political career. Also, I lived in Cleveland from 1988-1996; so I followed her political career and run for U.S. Senate. That wasn’t so impressive, either. Rather, I mention her because in her later years she aligned herself with the anti-vaccine movement, so much so that the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism named her its Person of the Year for 2008 and posted along with her death notice a video of her conspiracy-mongering about vaccines. In her time flirting with the anti-vaccine movement (and even seeming to embrace it at times), she parroted the same misinformation, the same pseudoscience, and the same nonsense that many anti-vaccine activists promoted. Worse, by doing so, she gave the imprimatur of her previous position as NIH director to that nonsense. Whenever AoA or other anti-vaccine websites noted Dr. Healy’s “concern” about vaccines, they always prominently mentioned her role nearly 20 years ago as NIH director, as if that authority carried over to her claims. Not surprisingly, none of the obituaries I’ve read about her thus far has mentioned her later flirtation with anti-vaccine quackery.

Here scientific missteps notwithstanding, though, Healy did deal with her life-threatening disease admirably, and it is saddening to see her go. As much as I’d like to, I can’t, however, think of her without remembering how she used and abused her authority in the public eye as a former director of the NIH to promote anti-vaccine pseudoscience. No doubt AoA will be using her words beyond the grave to promote its anti-vaccine message for many years to come. It’s a shame.


Now the “vaccine/autism” propaganda group A-CHAMP is getting in on the act. From an e-mail I just received:

Bernandine Healy Passes

More Info

A friend of scientific integrity and the autism community

The autism community lost a true friend on Monday with the passing of Bernadine Healy on Saturday from brain cancer. Healy was 67.

Healy had a distinguished career as a cardiologist, Chair of the Cleveland Clinic, head of the Red Cross and Director of the National Institutes of Health. Healy was a principled, and lonely voice in the medical establishment who repeatedly voiced her opinion that research was insufficient to conclude that vaccines do not cause autism.

We have seen the fury orthodox medicine will unleash upon those who question the status quo and Healy bravely put rational examination of the evidence ahead of the supporting a scientifically invalid establishment position.

Dr. Healy’s death is not only a loss to the autism community but to the principle that scientific inquiry should follow honest examination of objective data.

CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson conducted an extraordinary interview with Healy here:


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I wonder which anti-vaccine group will provide posthumous praise for Dr. Healy next?

Of course, the problem with Dr. Healy was not that she championed the “principle that scientific inquiry should follow honest examination of objective data.” The problem was that she fell for a line of inquiry (“anti-vaccinationism”) that is the very epitome of “motivated reasoning,” wherein the conclusion comes first and data designed to support it is cherry picked or manufactured.