University of Minnesota

Millicent Higgins on NHLBI

I left [Michigan] in ’84 and went to NIH and at that time there was all the excitement about what was called the next generation of epidemiologic studies, like CARDIA and ARIC and the Community Health Study. That was, obviously, the next thing and by then I had applied for a CARDIA site and they turned us down because we had no blacks. It was already becoming politicized.

And then there were the trials, of course, around that time as well. So the Institute really was committing . . a large chunk of its budget to epidemiologic studies and clinical trials. And community programs, too. So I would say it was a very exciting time to be there in Bethesda.

And one of the neat pluses was that you could consult with anybody. And the structure then of advisory committees was really, I think, much better, but Claude [Lenfant] eventually got rid of those. We would develop projects with the clinical applications and prevention advisory committee. Russ [Luepker], obviously, was one of the ones who was involved and many other people. Roger Williams was a big help on the new round of genetic studies.

Manning Feinlieb was my predecessor and Manning had very strong views about the institute epidemiologists doing some science themselves and that became a very controversial issue with Claude. Initially he supported that, but eventually deciding that their role should be to manage and be administrators not scientists. Gradually over time he didn’t want his epidemiologists publishing anything. He changed, changed his mind and wanted them purely to look after grantees.

But anyway, the Institute was an exciting place. Now Claude. . . has many strengths. He has some weaknesses, but now he was strong, with a great breadth of understanding and really, I mean, to manage a place like that – the Heart Lung and Blood Institute – was no mean feat. So I have a lot of admiration for him.

But also he had his limitations and some of them were imposed from on high, you know. NIH, even the director, isn’t a free agent. He has to dance to the tune of Congress and the President. He’s an executive person who has to offer his resignation when we get a new President. It’s not always accepted. But the other thing is, of course, the Public Health Service has quite a military sort of culture. So there was . . a feeling . . . going from an academic institution to a government position you had some real gains and then some things that were harder; you were not as free to speak your mind if it was against the party line.

There were great days, those early days. There were new things going and I think even up to not too long before I left we were able to start the Family Heart Study and the Blood Pressure Studies. Then Claude really wanted to be at the forefront of all the genetic developments for a while. And then, I think, I don’t know, perhaps he became less interested in the population-based side . . .

[It was] ‘The bench to the bedside.’(Millicent Higgins)

[Every time Claude would say that Credo, I would say, ‘From the bench to the bedside to the population outside. Doesn’t that make a nice alliteration, Claude?’ But it never went over.

The night I retired from the Advisory Council, Claude introduced me and said, “If Henry had his way this would be called the National Institute of Heart Disease Prevention.” (Henry Blackburn)]


BlackburnHiggins interview, Ann Arbor, MI; October 17, 2003.