Winter 2012

Keeping an Eye on the Nation’s Health

Profile of Margaret Hamburg

The Food Issue

  • by R. Alan Leo

Claims to Fame

Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, former New York City Health Commissioner, former Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and an expert in community health and in biodefense.

Growing up Medical

The daughter of prominent psychiatrists and public intellectuals, Margaret Hamburg '83 seemed destined for a career in academic medicine. But her course changed when a residency and a fellowship in New York City coincided with an emerging public health crisis: HIV and AIDS. "Even as we learned more about the disease, we were hampered in what we could effectively do to address it," Hamburg says. "And that made me want to learn more about health policy and public health."

woman in tan suit in front of american flag
Margaret Hamburg

Charting a Course

She had some catching up to do. "In med school, my greatest exposure to public health was eating in the cafeteria at the School of Public Health," Hamburg says. So she made her way to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "I thought I would go for a couple years and just get exposed," she says. "But I became immersed." By 1989, Hamburg was assistant director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, where she studied HIV and AIDS. Within two years, during the worst of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, Hamburg was tapped to lead New York City's Department of Health.

City Lights

"It was enormously challenging and rewarding, and has shaped all my subsequent efforts," she says of her time in New York City. AIDS and other public health problems, including tuberculosis, intertwined with a thicket of social factors, from housing and homelessness to incarceration and drug addiction. But Hamburg refused to surrender to complexity. The key, she says, was "taking a stepwise and science-based approach to the problems before us."

Tools of the Trade

At the FDA, where public demands for safety and innovation sometimes compete, Hamburg has advocated for investment in regulatory science as an answer to both. "Regulatory science is the ultimate bridge from a promising discovery to a real-world medical intervention. Yet much of the investment in science has neglected it."

Great Expectations

Despite her achievements, Hamburg's career path hasn't pleased everyone. "My great-aunt Winnie was very excited that I was going to become a doctor," Hamburg says. "She said, 'Now you can marry a doctor.' Later, when I became health commissioner, she complained to my father that I was giving up my career as 'a real doctor.' "

Image: courtesy of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration