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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Politics, science, and the White House

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 17 November 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4848
  1. Richard Smith, director, UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative
  1. richardswsmith{at}

    The memoir of a Nobel prizewinning doctor gives great insights into the complex relations between science and politics in the US, finds Richard Smith

    Harold Varmus—Nobel prize winner, former director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientific adviser to Barack Obama, and much else—describes his career as “meandering and unexpected.” Yet readers of his book, which is “far from being a full autobiography,” are more likely to view his career as a series of considerable achievements built one on another.

    Born in 1939, Varmus was initially more attracted to literature than science and, while at Amherst College, built a “career decision mobile” of postgraduate applications for English, medicine, fellowships to study Ibsen in Norway and at a Japanese University, and jobs in journalism. But, rejected by Harvard Medical School, he eventually studied medicine at Columbia after being asked at his interview the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon phrase “Ich ne want” (“I don’t know,” in case you don’t).

    “Fervently opposed” to the Vietnam war, Varmus sought to avoid it by joining the Public Health Service. This is what led him to the NIH, where he …

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