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Vol. LXIII, No. 12
June 10, 2011

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Warm, Gracious Ceremony
Official Portrait of Former Director Zerhouni Presented

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NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and Dr. Nadia Zerhouni
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and Dr. Nadia Zerhouni undraped the official portrait of Dr. Elias Zerhouni.

The portrait constructed of words—even the ones razzing him for his taste in fine clothes and fast cars—had to be at least as satisfying to former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni as the one completed with brushstrokes, as he returned to campus May 20 to preside over the presentation of his official portrait in Bldg. 1.

At a 50-minute ceremony in Wilson Hall, a gathering of past and present institute, center and Office of the Director officials embellished the image of Zerhouni—whom artist Steve Craighead had placed standing and smiling alongside a desk—with warm evocations of the former director’s character and intellect.

“Elias has been gone from NIH for 2½ years, but his impact is with us every day,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “We remember Elias’s fearless leadership of NIH for a space of 6½ years…My appreciation has really grown…of the many things that you did right and I am the greatest beneficiary of that legacy.”


Former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni Dr. and Mrs. Zerhouni are joined by the other speakers at the presentation.
At left, former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni divulged his “Zerhouni Strategy” for dealing with the institute/center directors, which he had once characterized as being “like herding cats”: “The best strategy to herd cats is to bring fish…[but] I had no fish. So I came up with the strategy of stealing the fish from each cat,” resulting in what is now known as the Common Fund. At right, Dr. and Mrs. Zerhouni are joined by the other speakers at the presentation

Collins said Zerhouni had “both heart and spine” as he “nobly and courageously defended science” during his tenure from May 2002 until October 2008. Among Zerhouni’s lasting legacies is the Common Fund, which Collins said “has really transformed NIH’s ability to take on projects that are high-risk but high-reward…and successfully push them forward.”

Collins said Zerhouni “got dollars out of the NIH [institute and center] directors” to support the Common Fund—then known as the Roadmap— an achievement, he quipped, that was perhaps more significant than the 1998-2003 doubling of the NIH budget.

NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes (l) was among the former colleagues with whom Zerhouni
NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes (l) was among the former colleagues with whom Zerhouni reunited at the ceremony.

Collins also paid tribute to Zerhouni’s trademark quotations, among them, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” and “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged that when Zerhouni was first announced as the President’s selection to lead NIH 9 years ago, many were skeptical of his prospects. “You came as an outsider and you gradually, with a phenomenal amount of integrity and dignity and intelligence, became an NIH’er.”

Fauci assured Zerhouni that NIH would always be his home and praised his handling of problems with “considerable grace, enormous integrity and, as always, guided by your data-driven, analytical approach and the strength of the character that gave you our respect, our admiration and ultimately the affection of all.

“We think of you among the greats of NIH,” Fauci said, then repeated an assessment of Zerhouni’s directorship that he had first delivered at Zerhouni’s farewell ceremony in October 2008: “Elias, you did good. You did real good. You should be justifiably proud of your many accomplishments as NIH director.”

NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus, whose own portrait hangs on the first floor of Bldg. 1 in tribute to his directorship of NIH from 1993 to 1999, joked to Zerhouni, “Once you are hung, you’re supposed to be gone.”

With Zerhouni’s portrait still draped in velvet, Varmus hoped to see revealed in it “an expression that exudes generosity” and some hint of the strong intellect Varmus had once tapped when he asked Zerhouni’s advice about reorganizing a “mildly dysfunctional” department at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which Varmus led for 10 years following his NIH directorship.

“Show this man with command and compassion in his face,” Varmus continued, before paying tribute to the breadth of cultures through which the Algeria-born Zerhouni has moved. “Elias revels in the diversity of his cultural opportunities,” Varmus noted. He urged the artist, “Show this man as a very contented and cosmopolitan member of our species.”

Varmus concluded with a recruitment pitch: “We are still trying to fill a few open institute directorships.”

Dr. Harold Varmus r Dr. Anthony Fauci

NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus said Zerhouni once loaned him a pair of dress pants when the one presentable pair he had brought to France with him split; the two had an upcoming audience with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci (r), according to Zerhouni, had a crucial bit of advice for success in government service: “If it feels good, it’s probably not allowed.”

Zerhouni’s wife, Dr. Nadia Zerhouni, spoke briefly about the significance of elements within the portrait, including the American flag, a globe tilted to show North Africa, a diploma from the University of Algiers and an ancient Arab medical manuscript, a copy of which the National Library of Medicine had loaned to Zerhouni.

“He’s been very proud to be here,” said Mrs. Zerhouni. “I should tell you, he hated the trip to and from home, but the 6½ years [as director] represented for him the tremendous life that allowed him to be the man he is today.”

As guests provided an impromptu drum roll, Collins and Mrs. Zerhouni undraped the portrait on the stage of Wilson Hall.

The guest of honor then declared, “I am very touched. I feel like I’m back home…NIH is not just an institution, it’s a global community.”

He said that, growing up in Nedroma, a town of 12,000 people in western Algeria, he never expected to leave. Then, responding to Varmus’s humorous jibes about his expensive suits and the silver Mercedes he drove to work, Zerhouni explained why the U.S. became his “country of adoption.

“You have to be yourself and you have to be fearless,” he said. “I think there is only one country that would recognize that—the United States.” Noting that “we’ve all come from different cultures and places,” he said, “Trajectories like mine and yours could not happen anywhere but in our country.”

Zerhouni, who is now president of global research and development at French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi-Aventis, admitted to having had “deep reservations” prior to becoming NIH director. He had consulted with Varmus about what the job would be like during a secret 5-hour meeting in the darkest recesses of the Harvard Club.

The Zerhouni family poses with the new portrait, before it was put on display on the first floor of Bldg. 1.

The Zerhouni family poses with the new portrait, before it was put on display on the first floor of Bldg. 1.

Photos: Ernie Branson

“That moment is when I said, you know what? There is no better place to spend the next 7 years than the NIH, despite all the issues,” Zerhouni said. “I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be, but how exciting and how rewarding it was going to be, because of the great colleagues here,” he added, thanking his wife and family for their support.

“We are a community,” he said. “We are a family. And yes, we sometimes have to fight over the budget.”

He concluded, “I could not be more proud of the public service that I spent time rendering, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of all of you here…a thousand years from now, when people look at the greatest institutions of the beginning of the 20th century, and the 21st century, NIH will be on that list…Never forget one thing: I think NIH is a source of knowledge, and knowledge comes from our ability to encourage young minds…Don’t forget—young investigators!”

The crowd of friends and colleagues then gave Zerhouni, whose children and grandchildren were also present, a standing ovation.

Following a reception, the portrait was officially hung on the first floor of Bldg. 1.NIHRecord Icon

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