Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2001Volume 29, Number 16

Dr. David A. Kessler

Dean David Kessler awarded Public Welfare
Medal for leadership on health issues

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) presented its most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal, to Dr. David A. Kessler, dean of the School of Medicine.

The NAS award honors Kessler for his leadership in controversial public health matters during his years as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 1990-97. In that post, he vigorously pursued such public health issues as the drug approval process and the regulation of tobacco products -- sometimes despite opposition from powerful special-interest groups.

"Dr. Kessler's visionary and practical leadership has had a profound effect on our society," said R. Stephen Berry, NAS home secretary and chair of the selection committee. "He has been a tireless fighter for improving this nation's public health."

Established in 1914, the Public Welfare Medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. Previous recipients include Gifford Pinchot, Herbert Hoover, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Carl Sagan, David Packard, Gilbert White, Arnold Beckman and C. Everett Koop.

"Throughout his tenure as FDA commissioner, Dr. Kessler exhibited courage and high scientific and ethical standards, allowing him to shape the agency into what it is today," said NAS President Bruce Alberts. "Using his broad knowledge and expertise in the fields of science, medicine, law, and government, he made remarkable strides in guaranteeing the well-being of our society. His legacy as commissioner has affected the lives of all U.S. citizens."

With a background in clinical medicine, education, research, administration and law, Kessler was tapped in 1990 by President George Bush to be FDA commissioner. He was reappointed by President Bill Clinton and served until February 1997.

The most noted and widely recognized accomplishment during Kessler's tenure at the FDA is the campaign he waged against the tobacco industry. He supported the identification of nicotine as the principal addictive agent in cigarettes. When cigarette manufacturers denied the claim that they were manipulating the nicotine content of tobacco products, Kessler began a comprehensive investigation into the tobacco industry. His book chronicling the five-year investigation -- "A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry" -- was released this month.

Kessler developed irrefutable evidence from memoranda and patents, which strengthened the case for the regulation of tobacco and impaired the industry's ability to promote tobacco use in the United States. New laws were developed for the marketing and sale of tobacco products, especially with relation to children. The industry's operations changed dramatically during Kessler's tenure, since tobacco companies were no longer able to deny nicotine's addictive properties.

In addition, Kessler focused his efforts on ways to speed up the agency's process for approving drugs. When he was appointed commissioner, the FDA was under heavy criticism for the prolonged length of its drug approval process, especially for medications and combination drug therapies to treat AIDS patients. With support from Congress, Kessler implemented a program of user fees levied on drug manufacturers. This allowed the FDA to hire additional researchers, dramatically reducing approval time from 33 months to 19 months without increasing the agency's budget.

Kessler's earliest achievement as FDA commissioner was to oversee the implementation of mandatory nutrition information on food labels, which gave consumers the opportunity to make healthier choices in food selection. Kessler's other noteworthy actions include establishing measures to strengthen the safety of the blood supply and improving the system for reporting adverse effects from drugs, medical devices and nutritional products.

From 1984 to 1990, Kessler served as medical director of the hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and held teaching appointments in its Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Epidemiology and Social Medicine. Kessler also taught food and drug law at Columbia University School of Law 1986-90.

Born on May 31, 1951, in New York City, Kessler graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree from Amherst College in 1973. He received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1978 and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School a year later. Kessler then went on to receive an advanced professional certificate from the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration in 1986. He became FDA commissioner at the age of 39.

Kessler has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor, the American Federation for AIDS Research's Sheldon W. Andelson Public Policy Achievement Award, the American Heart Association's National Public Affairs Special Recognition Award and the March of Dimes' Franklin Delano Roosevelt Leadership Award. Kessler is also a member of the Institute of Medicine.

The NAS Public Welfare Medal, consisting of a medal and an illuminated scroll, will be presented to Kessler at the Academy's annual meeting April 30. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter.


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