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OPRR's Dommel Retires After 37 Years of Federal Service

By Carla Garnett

After more than two decades grappling with some of biomedicine's most controversial issues, F. William "Bill" Dommel, Jr., director of education in the Office for Protection from Research Risks, retired Jan. 2. He spent 37 years in the federal government, 31 at NIH. For 20 years, he worked within NIH's Office of the Director, helping to develop agency, departmental and federal policy on medical ethics topics.

"I've been privileged to serve under nine U.S. Presidents and seven NIH directors," he remarked recently by telephone from his vacation spot in Ft. Lauderdale. "I don't want to say I've been around a long time," he chuckled, "but when I came to government, President Eisenhower had just dedicated Building 31, and when I came to NIH, the Westwood Building was new.

Dr. William F. "Bill" Dommel, Jr.

"My fondest memories are of the team approach I employed each time an ethical crisis emerged," he continued. "I am delighted to have been a part of those teams and to have seen firsthand the nearly inexhaustible energy and dedication of my NIH colleagues."

Dommel began his NIH career in 1965 as a computer systems analyst with the Division of Research Grants, where he spent 9 years. Previously he had worked for 4 years as an air traffic controller for the Navy and for a year as a GS-2 electric accounting machine operator for the General Services Administration.

Since 1974, Dommel's career has focused on the legal and ethical aspects of biomedical research. In the 1970's, he assisted the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and served as assistant director of the department secretary's ethics advisory board.

At that time, the hot issue was in vitro fertilization. The first in vitro baby, Louise Brown, had just been born in England, Dommel recalled. Brown will turn 20 this year.

"I was working with the ethics advisory board to formulate the policy recommendations on in vitro fertilization research to then-HEW Secretary Califano," he said. "The ethics panel decided unanimously that within certain guidelines, the conduct of federal research on in vitro fertilization would be ethically acceptable, and upon making the decision public, we received some 30,000 comments and letters in response. I'd say about 98 percent of the commenters disagreed with it and federal funding of human in vitro fertilization research was never initiated. Since 1978, thousands of babies have been born using the technique, and despite the fact that methods, costs and success rates vary enormously, these techniques are commonly used in fertility treatment throughout the world."

The next decade found him drafting the HHS regulations for the protection of human subjects of research. Later, those regulations became standard throughout the entire federal government.

"I have worked directly and indirectly with Bill Dommel since the days of the National Commission for Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in the mid 1970's," recalled NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander. "No one is more knowledgeable about the issues and federal regulations in this area than Bill. He also has the ability to translate concepts into clear and precise regulatory language, and the regulations that he has had major responsibility for writing reflect this skill. Bill and I have addressed many issues together over the years -- most recently inclusion of children in clinical research. His breadth of knowledge, skill at crafting appropriate language, and attention to detail have all played major roles in helping to deal with these issues. He has been a tremendous asset to the NIH and the DHHS as well as a good friend."

A 1971 B.A. graduate of the University of Maryland who received a juris doctorate from American University in 1975, Dommel has held various leadership positions in OPRR. In addition, from September 1996 to January 1997 he was called on a special assignment to serve as acting executive director of the national bioethics advisory commission (NBAC). Under his guidance, last fall NBAC held its first four meetings and an international conference on issues regarding the protection of the rights and welfare of human research subjects and the management/use of genetic information.

Before the term at NBAC, he had served as the key OPRR spokesman on several hotly debated science concepts including the use of human fetal tissue in transplantation research, research with the human embryo, research involving pregnant women, and research involving persons with diminished capacity to consent.

"Laboratory animals and human volunteers have had no better friend in Washington, D.C., than Bill Dommel," said Dr. Gary Ellis, OPRR director. "[In addition], Bill is probably the best teacher that OPRR has ever had. His enthusiasm is infectious to an audience, and he is invariably invited back for other presentations. We will be scrambling to fill the void created by his departure."

Dommel's federal career was distinguished with dozens of awards over the years, including the NIH Director's Award and the NIH Merit Award. In retirement, he plans to establish Dommel and Associates consulting firm and devote more time to volunteer work and relaxation.

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