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Vol. LVII, No. 8
April 22, 2005

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Familiar Face Offers Perspective
Former NIH Director Healy Returns for Women's History Month

On Mar. 28 the National Library of Medicine welcomed back a former NIH director to lecture in honor of Women's History Month. A history-maker herself, Dr. Bernadine Healy was the first woman to be appointed director of NIH, launching the groundbreaking Women's Health Initiative during her tenure.

Today, Healy is a medical and health columnist for U.S. News & World Report, and in a recent column she took issue with Harvard President Lawrence Summers' suggestion that the fewer women than men in the sciences may reflect men's greater "intrinsic aptitude" for the field. Drawing on that article, Healy suggested in her lecture that evolutionary studies that describe gender differences between our cave-dwelling ancestors actually tell us very little about men and women today. As she put it, the image of man as hunter- gatherer and woman as hearth keeper may be "intriguing stuff — and cute fodder for jokes about women reading maps and men not asking for directions — but does it really tell us why girls don't grow up to be scientists?"

Today, former NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healy is a medical and health columnist for U.S. News & World Report. She says health professionals have a responsibility to help others develop an informed opinion about medical topics.  
Healy remembered personally experiencing some of the social factors that contribute to gender inequalities in the sciences in the late 1960s. "As a medical student at Harvard, out of an all-female Vassar, I wondered whether I would be dazzled by male genius," she recalled. "What struck me was that men, who made up most of the student and faculty bodies, were pretty smart but had no special edge. However, men were the anointed normative standard as both doctors and patients, and women had little choice but to buy in." When Healy made her debut in 1991 as director of the National Institutes of Health, she joked that she might have been offered the post only because things were so bad that no man would take the job. At the time, scientists were leaving in record numbers and the agency had been accused of sexism and racism in hiring and promotion. NIH had been without a director for almost 2 years, and her appointment was viewed especially positively because of her experience as former deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Aware of the tendency to see male physiology as the norm in clinical trials and treatment regimens, Healy went on to launch the Women's Health Initiative, the first large-scale study of women's health (involving more than 150,000 participants) ever undertaken. The results have shown that standards developed from the study of men do not always apply to women. But do physiological differences translate into any significant differences between men and women's brains?

Although there is some evidence that men and women may excel in different types of problem- solving, Healy said she believes the sexes are intellectually equal. She explained that we can have "a constructive discussion about small differences that show men score a bit higher in spatial reasoning," but we need to remember "that women excel with words — and in overall school performance." The solution, she said, is to develop new educational models that would help all students to master these skills.

With NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg moderating, Healy takes questions following her recent lecture.  

Healy ended with remarks from a recent column she had written about the legal treatment of Terri Schiavo. Calling for scientists to take on a more active role in helping the public understand the complexities in medical decision- making, she noted that the decision to withdraw food and water was made without an independent medical review of the patient's case — instead, the judge relied upon neurological reports from 2002. Furthermore, Healy pointed out, the reports reflected attempts by each side to "win the case. The winner in court is usually the one with the most convincing medical witnesses, who speak with the greatest confidence and authority. One expert's opinion is pitted against another's, and the judge has to figure out which to believe." Healy suggested the competition will fail all the family members, preventing everyone involved from reconciling themselves to a decision that should be made in the best interests of the patient.

Discussing some of the most controversial issues in science and medicine today, the former NIH director encouraged attendees to consider their own contributions to public understanding. How do we explain conflicting data or medical ethics to non-specialists, who receive a barrage of good and bad health information from the media? Those of us in the know, she concluded, have a special responsibility to help others develop an informed opinion.

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