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Lenfant Departs NHLBI Directorship After More Than 21 Years
By Rich McManus
Photos by Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
By switching just one letter, the Latin epitaph on the grave of William Harvey discoverer of the human circulatory system could be amended in a way appropriate to the departure, at the end of August, of longtime NHLBI director Dr. Claude Lenfant. A rubbing of Harvey's epitaph is one of the principal works of art in Lenfant's office in Bldg. 31; taken in England's Greasley Cemetery, it was given to Lenfant by a former colleague and begins, "Farewell, vain world, I've had enough of thee..."
Far from having had enough of NIH, Lenfant says he'd have elected the exact same heart institute career if he had it to do all over again and describes his tenure here as "a very, very fulfilling experience." And he's not retiring either, just switching jobs. He is president of the World Hypertension League and hopes to continue to contribute to public health, "especially in developing countries...The issue now is not to do new research, but to apply what we know."
Little did Lenfant know that he would never return to his academic appointment. He rose, in 1972, to director, Division of Lung Diseases, where he spent 8 years, then had a brief stint as director of the Fogarty International Center in 1981-1982 before becoming the 10th NHLBI director in July 1982.
Until then, NHLBI directors usually held the position for 5-10 years; Lenfant was director for 21 years, 2 months. Why did he last so long? "One answer would be that no one fired me," he says with a smile. "I think it's a very exciting job. I like it. It met my expectations, and was a fantastic opportunity. I hope that I did a good job." Longevity of this sort always involves two factors, he explains: "The person likes the job, and the boss is satisfied with the person."
Looking back over his leadership years, Lenfant sees "several things that I'm especially proud of. This institute has many communities, with many interests. I think we achieved a very nice equilibrium among them. They were not fighting each other, but supporting one another. I think that is quite nice. We also had a good balance of research among basic, clinical, preventive and applications of what we know." Of this latter category he observes, "It is very important for NIH to be sure that what comes from all the research we are supporting is passed on to the practice of medicine. I feel very, very strongly about it."
Were he to advise his successor, or any institute director, Lenfant whose tenure makes him the dean of the IC directors says, "You've got to do lots of listening. Everybody wants something different. People need a chance to make their case. So it's very important to listen, and be available, even if the decision doesn't go their way." He cautions, "People resent feeling that they didn't have the chance to be heard."
He also reemphasizes, "It's a big thing to me, this issue of balance. All of us have our own passions about the things that are important to us. We have to be careful not to let that dominate what we have to do. After all, we're here for public service. We're here for everybody, not just for those who do what we like to do."
Lenfant says NIH has changed enormously over the years, as has the culture that has supported it. "Where we are as a nation is very different from 30 years ago," he says. "In 1970, NIH was a relatively small organization, and today it is a huge organization. Many cities in the United States aren't as big as NIH. It's a different world."
Still, he maintains, "NIH remains a very unique and appealing and attractive place to be. I would do pretty much the same thing if I had it to do over. I have absolutely no regrets. I hope the institute is okay, but I'm not worried about it. It's a very strong organization and the staff is absolutely fantastic."
Even long, successful careers have their frustrations, and Lenfant says he wishes NHLBI under his rein could have been more successful in the public health arena. "It was not because we didn't try hard enough," he explains. "We have to compete with many other activities and public health efforts." He is also passionate about the need to apply the knowledge that science has accumulated inside journals, books and libraries. "It sounds very simple, but is in fact very difficult," he says. "Discoveries are happening all the time, but how do we apply them?" Part of the problem is cultural, he observes: Getting the word out to practitioners and affecting patient care "is not as spectacular as making a big discovery."
It was the chance to be involved in Big Science that lured Lenfant away from Europe when he was younger, he recalls. Working in a laboratory of cardiac surgery after earning his M.D. at the University of Paris in 1956, Lenfant said "it was very clear that the U.S. was ahead of what we were doing in Europe. My boss sent me here from Paris to see what was going on." He arrived as a postdoctoral trainee for further studies in cardiac and circulatory diseases at the University of Buffalo, and later at Columbia University. He discovered that "the research enterprise in this country is much bigger and better than anywhere else in the world."
The sheer size of the U.S. investment in medical research has also meant that "the pace of change is very fast these days. We need the ability to adjust quickly to changes. If we don't, we lose a lot."
As consumed as Lenfant has been directing one of NIH's largest institutes, he has not scanted his other passions, which include antiques of all kinds, including furniture, and objects made of porcelain and pewter, as well as graphic arts. "It is more important to be seduced by what you like rather than by a particular period," says the connoisseur. "I used to collect more than I do now," he notes. "It's become much more expensive."
Lenfant is also "very interested in the history of medicine, and how it has evolved over the centuries. Some of the ideas that are still of interest today were conceived hundreds of years ago."
Though he plans to remain in this area with his wife, a Ph.D. who organizes public health programs, Lenfant will doubtless revisit the Pacific Northwest, where four of his five children live. Still attracted to that part of the world, he reminisces about a favorite old house on Puget Sound's Gig Harbor: "If I'd held on to it, I could have sold it and retired 2 years ago!" he laughs.
He also divulges an aversion to touting his many awards and honors in the pages of this newsletter: "I would rather emphasize the uniqueness and value of the NIH, and the commitment of the people who work here."
For those who would like to review the many achievements Lenfant modestly withheld from the pages of the Record, visit http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/jul2003/nhlbi-03.htm.
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