Harold Eliot Varmus

An expert in several fields of medical research, Harold Eliot Varmus (born 1939) became director of the National Institutes of Health in 1993.

Harold Eliot Varmus, a medical doctor, was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH, located in Bethesda, Maryland, is made up of several individual institutes; for example, Aging, Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Cancer, Child Health and Human Development, Environmental Health Science, and Drug Abuse.

On his nomination as director, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala issued the following statement: "We are delighted that Dr. Varmus will be our new NIH director—the first NIH director to have won a Nobel Prize—because he is one of the world's most eminent and most honored biomedical scientists. He has been working at the cutting edge of modern cell and molecular biology, and he has had an active relationship with NIH for some 30 years, as NIH intramural scientist, grantee, and public adviser. He has taken a leading role in national discussion of science policy issues."

Varmus was born on December 18, 1939, and went to public school in Freeport, Long Island, New York. His father, Frank, was a family physician; his mother, Beatrice, a psychiatric social worker. Majoring in English, Varmus graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1961 with a B.A. degree. He received his M.A. in English literature from Harvard University in 1962. In 1966 he got his M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

During his time as a medical student, he spent three months in northern India at a mission hospital. On graduation he served as intern and resident at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. He then served as a clinical associate for two years at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, where he did research with another physician, Ira Pastan, on bacterial genetics.

Varmus joined J. Michael Bishop's laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), as a postdoctoral fellow in 1970 and began his long, continuing study of tumor viruses in collaboration with the staff. He became a faculty member later that same year. In 1979 he was named a full professor and in 1984 became the American Cancer Society research professor of molecular biology.

His specialties at UCSF were in microbiology, biochemistry, and biophysics. His research concentrated on genes that cause cancer, known as "oncogenes." He achieved international recognition as an authority on retro-viruses, the class of viruses that cause a range of cancers in animals and AIDS in human beings.

In 1989 Varmus and Bishop shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (as it is called) for showing that oncogenes can develop from normal cellular genes called protooncogenes. While investigating a retroviral gene, v-src, which causes tumors in chickens, Varmus and Bishop found a nonviral src gene, which closely resembles v-src, to be present in the normal cells of birds and animals.

In the course of studying breast tumors in mice, Varmus uncovered data relevant to the study of AIDS and human breast cancer. His work focused particularly on the biochemical character of the AIDS virus. He was chairman in 1986 of the subcommittee of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses when it designated the AIDS virus as HIV.

Varmus chaired the Board of Biology of the National Research Council (NRC), served as adviser to the Congressional Caucus on Biomedical Research, was a member of the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy of Biomedical Societies, and co-chaired the New Delegation for Biomedical Research, which was made up of the major figures in biomedical research. He was the director of a popular public symposium sponsored by UCSF on recombinant DNA in the fall of 1992.

At NIH, Varmus set to rest initial fears that his directorship might be compromised by his lack of prior large-scale administrative experience. He was able to restore morale and to initiate programs to reduce paperwork, open labs to outsiders, toughen standards of tenure review, and introduce innovation as a major criterion in the grant application peer review process. He successfully recruited top scientists to administrative positions by creating a depoliticized decision-making environment and by offering them their own labs on the NIH campus. This policy allowed them to continue their research and retain a sense of being active researchers, a policy which did evoke some Congressional criticism about conflicts of interest.

Varmus's strong committment to tilting NIH more strongly toward investigator-initiated basic research at the expense of applied and targeted research set him at odds with aging and AIDS activists, who had lobbied against his nomination. He consistently voiced concern to Congress that federal budget cuts would affect research at the NIH and at teaching hospitals around the U.S. as hospitals considered eliminating research to cope with the cuts.

He is author or editor of four books and hundreds of research papers. With Robert Weinberg he wrote Genes and the Biology of Cancer for the Scientific American Library, a book for general audiences. He served as editor for several professional journals, and on review and advisory boards for government offices and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. When the Department of Defense (DOD) received $210 million to assign for studies of breast cancer, Varmus served on the committee of the Institute of Medicine to advise DOD on assigning the funds.

Varmus is married to Constance Casey, a book reviewer and editor. They have two sons, Jacob and Christopher.

Further Reading on Harold Eliot Varmus

For additional information on Varmus see his book, written with Robert Weinberg, Genes and the Biology of Cancer (1993); Boyce Rensberger, "Nobel Laureate Confirmed as NIH Chief, " in The Washington Post (November 21, 1993); Rick Weiss and John Schwartz, "Cyclist, Scholar, Scientist, " The Washington Post Health section (November 23, 1993); Science (May 9, 1997); and The Lancet (January 1, 1994).