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Photo: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Former Director of the National Institutes of Health; co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine; President, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York

American Academy Distinguished Visitor - Class of Spring 2006

Harold Varmus, former Director of the National Institutes of Health and co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, has served as the president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City since January 2000. Much of Dr. Varmus’ scientific work was conducted during 23 years as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, where he and Dr. J. Michael Bishop and their co-workers demonstrated the cellular origins of the oncogene of a chicken retrovirus. This discovery led to the isolation of many cellular genes that normally control growth and development and are frequently mutated in human cancer. For this work, Bishop and Varmus received many awards, including the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.


Varmus is also widely recognized for his studies of the replication cycles of retroviruses and hepatitis B viruses, the functions of genes implicated in cancer, and the development of mouse models for human cancer. In 1993, Varmus was named by President Bill Clinton to serve as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until the end of 1999.


In addition to authoring over 300 scientific papers and four books, including an introduction to the genetic basis of cancer for a general audience, Varmus has been an advisor to the federal government, pharmaceutical and bio-technology firms, and many academic institutions. He served on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, chairs the board of directors of Public Library of Science and the Scientific Board of the Grand Challenges in Global Health, and is involved in initiatives to promote science in other countries. He has been a member of the US National Academy of Sciences since 1984 and of the Institute of Medicine since 1991. A native of Freeport, Long Island, he majored in English literature at Amherst College and earned a master’s degree in English at Harvard University.


Varmus graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, worked as a medical student in a hospital in India, and served on the medical house staff at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. His scientific training occurred first as a Public Health Service officer at the NIH, where he studied bacterial gene expression with Dr. Ira Pastan, and then as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

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