NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

First FNIH Leader

Former NIH Associate Director Galasso Is Mourned

Dr. Galasso
Dr. George J. Galasso

Dr. George J. Galasso, a leader in antiviral research whose efforts led to the successful treatment of many viral infectious diseases and cancer, died Nov. 5. He retired in 1996 as NIH associate director of extramural programs but continued his efforts in biomedical research, later that year becoming the first leader of what is now the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH).

Born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents, Galasso graduated from Manhattan College, served in the Army as a medical technician and then earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of North Carolina in 1960. Following a postdoctoral fellowship, he became research assistant professor at the UNC Medical School.

In 1968, he was accepted into NIH’s Grants Associates Program, a highly selective training program for health science administrators. In 1969, he was asked to initiate an Antiviral Research Program for NIAID. 

The initial goal was to determine whether interferon had a role in treating disease and to determine whether chemical agents could be used to treat viral diseases. Due to Galasso’s efforts with other agents, adenine arabinoside was shown effective against herpes encephalitis, the first time an antiviral agent was successfully used to treat an ongoing serious viral disease. This showed that antiviral agents could indeed prove effective and paved the way for other antiviral agents. 

Galasso also was a leader in interferon clinical trials and was instrumental in showing the efficacy of interferon in hepatitis; this led to interferon’s use against cancer. His efforts in this field have been internationally recognized. He served on the U.S.-U.S.S.R. science exchange program and headed delegations to the then-U.S.S.R. in the 1970s. 

He was an invited speaker at international meetings and as a western representative at meetings in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain period. He was made an honorary faculty member of the Hubei Medical School, Wuhan, People’s Republic of China, where he participated in a virology course for representatives of all the provinces of China.

In 1973 he became chief of the NIH Infectious Diseases Branch with responsibility for development of vaccines and antivirals to combat all infectious diseases. His efforts in vaccine development led to the Zoster vaccine. 

In 1983 he became NIH associate director for extramural programs, with responsibility for NIH policies involving grants and contracts. He developed the first set of conflict of interest rules in conjunction with the other research agencies of the government. He authored nearly 100 scientific articles and reviews and served on the editorial board of several scientific journals and as review editor for Antiviral Research.

He was the founder of the International Society for Antiviral Research in 1985 and was active in it until 2008, serving as president (1992-1994). 

Galasso was also instrumental in founding the International AIDS Society and organized the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington in 1983. This was quite a feat since it was during the highly charged era of AIDS activism and although the meeting was expected to draw approximately 3,000 participants, there were 7,000 attendees. HHS recognized his successful organization of the meeting and crowds with the Assistant Secretary for Health’s Award for Exceptional Achievement.

Galasso had a passion for mentoring younger scientists and a deep love for NIH and health science research, which compelled him to stay involved after retirement. He was instrumental in establishing FNIH, which had earlier been created by Congress to support the mission of NIH. He helped to develop FNIH’s infrastructure, including finding its first office space. 

The FNIH began operations in January 1996, when Galasso retired from NIH and agreed to serve as the organization’s first executive director on a voluntary basis. After managing its first 18 months, he handed leadership over to the next FNIH executive director in September 1997. The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021, owing many thanks to Galasso’s passion and commitment.

Galasso also continued to work for the International Society for Antiviral Research, for which he raised more than $100,000 per year. He served as consultant to a pharmaceutical company and assisted other scientific societies. His many contributions to NIH were recognized by his election to the board of directors of the NIH Alumni Association (2002-2007).

Over the course of his career, Galasso received numerous honors, including the Distinguished Service Award from the University of North Carolina. He was awarded the title Cavaliere Della Republica by the President of Italy in 1989 for services to the field of public health and collaborations with Italian scientists. He received distinguished service awards from the International Society for Antiviral Research and the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science from his alma mater, Manhattan College, in 2007.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years Joan Galasso; children Cathy Galasso-Schwartz, John Galasso and George J. Galasso; grandchildren; brother; step-grandchildren; and a host of nieces and nephews.

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