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Harold E. Varmus Papers 1904-2010
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Biographical/Historical Note

For the past forty years, Harold E. (Eliot) Varmus (b. 1939) has been at the forefront of cancer research, served as leader of some of the most prestigious scientific research facilities in the United States, and was instrumental in the growth of electronic access to scientific publications. Varmus's research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the late 1980s led to a new theory of how cancer genes (oncogenes) originate (mutations of otherwise normal genes caused by carcinogens or naturally occurring errors in cell division). He shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with fellow UCSF scientist J. Michael Bishop based on this research. In 1993, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to helm the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the first Nobel Laureate to do so. The 2000s then saw him take the Presidency of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and later, the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Varmus was born December 18, 1939, in Oceanside, New York to Frank Varmus, a general practitioner, and Beatrice Barasch, a psychiatric social worker. Although Varmus dabbled in premed courses while attending Amherst College, his first intellectual love was that of writing and English Literature, which led him to earning an AB magnum cum laude degree in English in 1962 and a MA at Harvard University. Eventually, though, Varmus came to realize that he could help people more immediately as a man of medicine, not of literature. He entered the College of Physicians of Surgeons at Columbia University in New York, and earned his M.D. in 1966.

Early in his medical career, Varmus became interested in the study of the scientific basis of disease. While at Columbia, he worked with NIH scientist Ira Pastan, whose assignments helped Varmus gravitate to the field of basic research. Varmus joined Pastan at NIH after completing his residency in 1968 as part of a program teaching basic research methods to physicians.

In 1969, Varmus first crossed paths with UCSF scientist J. Michael Bishop, who was studying retroviruses to detect cancer-causing genes. It took only a short time before the two scientists realized their natural compatibility with each other in terms of intellect and temperament (as well as fascination with cancer viruses), which led to Varmus joining Bishop's lab in 1970 as a post-doctoral fellow. Varmus and Bishop soon became equals, and all their basic cancer research discoveries were as teammates. Eventually, Varmus would become Professor of Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Physics in 1979.

Bishop and Varmus discovered normal cells all have the seeds of potential cancer-causing genes. These seeds, called proto-oncogenes, exist across many different species and many different areas of the body. They also are vital in controlling cell growth and specialization. However, if these proto-oncogenes are mutated -- either through cumulative mutations over time or through external causes (carcinogens, viruses), they can trigger uncontrolled growth and division as well. These discoveries helped scientists understand why there are so many different cancers and why cancer is often a disease of old age. For their work, Varmus and Bishop won numerous awards including California Scientists of the Year, a Lasker Award in 1983, the Alfred P. Sloane Prize in 1984, and the Nobel Prize in 1989.

Because of his work with retroviruses, Varmus was tasked to chair the scientific advisory committee that had to come up with the formal nomenclature (name) for one of the more frightening retroviruses to appear suddenly in the 1980s: the immunodeficiency virus that caused the syndrome known as AIDS. Using his considerable tact and diplomatic skills (skills that were serve him in his next job), Varmus polled his fellow committee continuously to get a consensus, aware of the medical and political sensitivities with the issue as well. Eventually, Varmus and the committee came up with a name: HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton tapped Varmus as the next Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Serving as head as one of the more powerful health institutions in the world, he made major changes in the way intramural and extramural programs were conducted, brought in many new directors for the various institutes, increased morale among the NIH scientists, and just as important, increased their budgets from just under $11 billion to over $16 billion by the time he left office. Varmus's ability to explain complex science in a simple way to Congress (and the public) allowed him to define the essential benefits of medical research and to avoid having money earmarked for ideas that seemed good but were actually a waste (such as "wars" on highly complex diseases such as cancer). Varmus's administrative skills were also put to the test when dealing with other controversies, including the debates over stem-cell research and in settling lingering disputes with the Pasteur Institut in France over credit for discovering HIV.

During his last two years at NIH, Varmus, together with colleagues in the U. S. and abroad, worked on "E-biomed," an ambitious project that aimed to publish scientific articles online, free to the public, and provide an online searchable archive of biomedical literature. The publishing initiative was soon bogged down by resistance from journal publishers, but the online archive portion of the project was launched in December 1999 as PubMed Central, hosted at the National Library of Medicine. In 2000, Varmus helped found the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit publisher which makes full-text articles available without cost or restriction to readers.

Following a term of directorship he deemed adequate, Varmus accepted the position of President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer center in New York in 2000. He revitalized and re-organized the scientific programs in an effort to harness advances in biological sciences in order to give better care to cancer patients. He oversaw the construction of new clinical facilities, a new center for breast cancer treatment and imaging, and organized consortia of other research institutions. In addition to his administrative pursuits, he also focused on the development of mouse models of human cancer.

In 2010, Varmus returned to NIH, but this time as Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Varmus has authored over 300 scientific papers and five books, including his memoir, The Art and Politics of Science (2009), which explains his rise from graduate student at Amherst to his Nobel-Prize winning scientific efforts, to his positions at NIH and MSKCC.