OMAR's Elliott Retires After 40 Years in Government
By Carla Garnett
For the last 18 or so years of his career, Jerry Elliott coordinated controversy. And, he readily admits, he utterly enjoyed every minute of what he calls "the golden years." On Feb. 1, however, after 40 years of federal service, Elliott retired from his post as program and management analysis officer at the NIH Office of Medical Applications of Research. He had served as coordinator of OMAR's consensus development conferences since 1984, overseeing more than 50 of the high-level biomedical and research confabs during that time.
"I could have retired many years ago," he noted. "I have been fortunate enough to find a niche, one that I really enjoyed. Coordinating the consensus development conferences has been so rewarding and has involved so many exceptional people. The thing that's so great about coordinating these conferences is that you get a topical, superficial knowledge of each topic. I've learned a great deal about a great many subjects."
A North Carolina native and an N.C. State University graduate, Elliott began his federal career as an army draftee during the Berlin Crisis. In 1961, he was assigned to Ft. Detrick as a biology lab technician.
"I worked on anthrax in those days," he recalled. "Seems like things have come full circle."
Following graduate work in microbiology back at N.C. State, Elliott returned to Ft. Detrick just before the biowarfare unit there closed down. He moved on to a tissue culture lab at NCI, where he spent the next several years as a microbiologist working for Drs. John and Elizabeth Weisburger, longtime researchers in chemical carcinogenesis.
By that time, Elliott was married with four kids and a number of other extracurricular interests. He had realized that to get promoted in the lab he would need not only to earn his Ph.D., but also to devote nearly 24 hours a day to research. Since neither prospect appealed to him, he applied for and was accepted into the Management Intern Program, receiving an M.B.A. along the way. He drew various rotations in legislation, budget and personnel, especially enjoying an assignment with lawyer and physician Dr. Joseph Perpich. By the early 1980s, Elliott had gone to work for NCI program planning officer Lou Carrese, whom Elliott calls a groundbreaker in biomedical science planning.
"Before Lou came, there wasn't any formal planning," he said. "People felt that the only way to do science was through serendipity. Then came the National Cancer Act, which doubled the money. We had to figure out how to spend it. Lou was a pioneer. He came here from industry. All the other institutes copied him."
During his career at NIH, Elliott recalls being in on the ground floor of several other issues that would change the course of medical research.
"I remember when AIDS was first mentioned," he said. "I was working at NCI for [Dr.] Guy Newell, who was acting director at the time. They were talking about gay men and the cases of Kaposi's sarcoma they were seeing. Those were the early days of the disease."
By far, though, Elliott's favorite work involved arranging consensus development conferences, which bring together for agreement a panel of the nation's non-federal experts on medically important yet controversial topics. Issues such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (1998), cochlear implants (1995), electroconvulsive therapy (1985) and acupuncture (1997) never ceased to fascinate Elliott, who was at once an observer and as the person who coordinated the meetings an insider.
"The thing I remember most about Jerry is how good a schmoozer he is and I mean that in a good way," said Bill Hall, HHS deputy press officer who worked with Elliott during the golden days of consensus development conferences. "He genuinely loves people and is one of the friendliest, most down to earth people I've ever known. In the 9 years I worked with Jerry at OMAR, the characteristic about him that struck me the most was how he would very quickly get to be 'best friends' with virtually every member of a consensus conference panel, many of whom were at the top of their respective fields of medicine. I did find it curious, though, that at one of our conferences I distinctly heard Jerry off to the side with one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country saying, 'You know, I've got this problem with my knee.' And the surgeon's response was, 'Well, I think I can sneak you in a week from Thursday.'"
Former OMAR director Dr. John H. Ferguson remembers relying on Elliott's sixth sense for maintaining the integrity of the conferences. "Jerry always had great antennae for things that might subvert or distort the NIH consensus process," Ferguson noted. "There were always lots of people, groups, organizations, etc., that would try to use the process for their own ends and Jerry could spot them a mile away. He was kind of the 'keeper of the flame of purity' of the consensus process."
In addition to the mini-education he received with each topic, Elliott said he took greatest pleasure in witnessing the health benefits that often followed a conference's recommendation.
"Sometimes you can see the direct result," he said, noting the CDC on antenatal corticosteroids (1994). "Before we held the conference, about 15 percent of expectant mothers used them (to prevent complications from premature births). That number is up to 85 or 90 percent now. Literally, thousands of babies were saved. That in itself is very rewarding."
"Jerry's retirement is a real loss to OMAR," concluded Dr. Barry Kramer, NIH associate director for disease prevention. "I refer to him as the Cal Ripken of OMAR. He has conducted more NIH Consensus Development Conferences than any human being, and this is a record not likely to be broken. His advice and industry will be really missed here."
In retirement, Elliott has so many activities planned that he should find it difficult to miss NIH too often. A Civil War history buff, he wants to teach history at local high schools "as long as I don't have to acknowledge that the South lost," he jokes. Also on his agenda are hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, resuming his thrice-weekly raquetball play, rebuilding his 25-foot Bayliner boat and sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway with his son, spending more time with his grandkids and indulging his love for live music by tending bar at a local pub. Still, Elliott who revealed that one of his proudest accomplishments here was his induction into NIH's Blood Donor Hall of Fame in 1998 admitted that leaving a job he has loved for so long will not be easy.
"There's a certain kind of pride that you develop in working at NIH over the years," he said. "Good work is done here, and you encounter caring people, people who truly are making a difference."
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