Levity and Brevity
By Carla Garnett
It lasted only about 55 minutes, but in that short period, many tales were told out of school -- some of them made up. Laughter and applause punctuated most comments. An irreverent oath was uttered. Throughout the proceedings, one thought remained constant: Only the highest regard is held for NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus and the job he is doing at NIH by his colleagues, friends and associates.
According to a veteran NIH scientist and administrator, an NIH director traditionally receives a round of applause at an ICD directors' meeting only twice: upon arrival and upon departure. "We want to change that tradition now, because Harold is a very special person and an extraordinary director of NIH," said the veteran -- NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci -- who emceed "A Celebration of Leadership: A Tribute to Harold Varmus and Science at the NIH." The event was held in Masur Auditorium Dec. 18 by the ICD directors. Speakers included HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, assistant secretary for health Dr. Philip Lee, NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, National Academy of Sciences president Dr. Bruce Alberts and NCI director Dr. Richard Klausner. Congresswoman Connie Morella (R-Md.) and FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler were among more than 500 attendees, and Constance Casey, Varmus's wife, joined him and the speakers on stage.
"This is sort of a midterm tribute -- and we hope not even yet midterm -- an expression of our admiration and affection for the scientist, the leader, the man," explained Fauci, who said the program would proceed in a manner much-favored by Varmus, "brief and to the point."
The program began with glowing compliments from Lee and Kirschstein to Varmus's "visionary leadership" and "tremendous energy and creativity in the adventure called NIH." Rather quickly, though -- by the third speaker, Varmus's close friend Alberts -- the event developed into more of a celebrity roast that included a humorously doctored slide and sound presentation by Klausner of Varmus's supposed earliest experiences at NIH.
"Where there is no vision, the people will perish," commented Lee, quoting Proverbs. Eminently qualified to judge NIH leadership, having served first as ASH in 1965 when Dr. James Shannon directed NIH through what is called the agency's "golden era," Lee said Varmus's tenure here has returned NIH to that former luster. Behind every effective institution, he continued, is a leader who is able to tell a story. "NIH is one of the most effective public institutions in the world" because "no one has told NIH's story as effectively as Harold Varmus."
After lauding Varmus for his unparalleled scientific judgment, his patience, self-confidence and values, Alberts described him as "a man totally without pretense, who refuses to wear a tie." A beat later he drew chuckles when he jokingly addressed the honoree, "Who tied that one you've got on today?"
Shalala rounded out the 7-minute salutes by reading greetings to Varmus from President Clinton and administering a newly revised oath of office to the NIH director, who -- with right hand placed on a copy of Dickens' Great Expectations -- dutifully vowed "to support and defend the Constitution against anyone who says I can't bring my bicycle into the building" and "to continue wearing clothes that can be found only in one place and time (San Francisco in the 1960's)" and other such inglorious, but funny promises.
"In less than 4 years," said Shalala, sobering, "Harold has already built a great legacy at NIH for which science, his colleagues and indeed the American people are deeply indebted to him."
Celebrating his 57th birthday on the same day, Varmus accepted both accolades and good-natured jibes with grace and his customary brevity. He recalled that a year or so ago, in a critique of his directorship at the 2-year mark, a writer quoted an "anonymous immunologist," who called Varmus "the invisible administrator."
Varmus said the characterization has stayed on his mind. His hope, however, is that discoveries made now at NIH are seen 50 years from now as having led to controlling or curing cancer or understanding HIV and many other diseases and that the science accomplished during his tenure here is judged by history as constantly vibrant and groundbreaking. Then, he said, "It will not matter who sat in which chair, who gave which speech or who signed which document and this administrator will be very pleased to be invisible. Many thanks again for this wonderful morning at this wonderful place."
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