Obama's FDA Pick: Margaret Hamburg

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Margaret Hamburg

At least eight people have died from eating tainted peanut products in recent months, and the Food and Drug Administration has absorbed much of the blame. It is the latest in a series of black eyes for the FDA over unsafe foods, dangerous medicines such as Vioxx and allegedly cozy ties with the pharmaceutical industry it regulates. President Obama has promised an overhaul of the $2 billion agency, and he believes he's found the woman to do it.

Within days the President is expected to name a longtime public health expert, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, as FDA Administrator. Dr. Hamburg, 53, known as Peggy, would be the latest in a string of high-achievers to join the Obama administration, with double degrees from Harvard and a successful run as New York City's youngest health commissioner under her belt.

Hamburg's career has focused on public health, bio-defense and disease control, and New Yorkers credit her with a substantial reduction in tuberculosis rates and increase in childhood immunizations during her tenure. She later served as an assistant health secretary in the Clinton administration, and she's currently a top scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group founded by Ted Turner to reduce the danger posed by "loose nukes" and other weapons of mass destruction.

Importantly, Hamburg is believed to be an acceptable choice to both the pharmaceutical industry and consumer advocates, a narrow tightrope any nominee must walk to win Senate confirmation.

Fast Facts:

•Born in Chicago to two distinguished physicians. Her mother was the first black woman to attend Vassar College and the first to earn a medical degree from Yale. Her father served as president of the Institute of Medicine from 1975-1980.

•Became New York's acting health commissioner in 1991 after just one year as deputy commissioner. A year later she was given the job permanently at 36 — the youngest in New York's history.

•Designed an aggressive tuberculosis control program that is credited with lowering the city's TB rate by 46% between 1992 and 1997.

• Supported a controversial needle exchange program designed to slow the spread of AIDS, helped boost childhood immunization rates and developed one of the first programs to prepare the public for a terrorist attack using anthrax or other bio-chemical weapons.

•Turned down an offer to be President Clinton's first federal AIDS coordinator in 1993 as she was expecting her first child. Four years later, she accepted a senior position in the Department of Health and Human Services.

•Subtly challenged her hard-charging boss, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, by summoning to a City Council hearing a health department aide Giuliani had targeted for firing. Hamburg also publicly opposed an effort requiring AIDS educators to promise to stress abstinence to city students, arguing that science and not "wishful thinking" should drive AIDS education.

•Serves on the board of Washington's Sidwell Friends Academy, where Sasha and Malia Obama are students.

•Her two children are among the few to have their mother's name listed twice on their birth certificates — once as their mother, and once as New York's health commissioner.

Quotes from Dr. Hamburg:

• "I believe that in this age of terror, the only thing that can stop a small group of committed individuals is a large group of committed individuals. Only all of us acting together, with wise policies and sound judgments, can make our world safer."
— A speech to graduating students at Bowdoin College, May 2003

• "Is it still a lack of information? Is it burnout and a sense of hopelessness? Is it denial? Is it recklessness? We don't fully understand."
—Voicing frustration at the persistence of risky sexual practices in New York City's adult establishments. (New York Times, April 16, 1995)

• "I think that's an investment worth making. Clearly it's not off the scale compared to other investments we routinely make for national security and defending the health and well-being of our nation."
—On the spending needed to prepare the country for an attack using weaponized smallpox or other bio-chemical hazards. (CNN, November 10, 2001)

Quotes about Dr. Hamburg:

• "She took care of me like a newborn. She's the kind of person you figure can do almost anything."
—Former New York Mayor David Dinkins, remembering how Dr. Hamburg persuaded him to take a tuberculosis test after he spent time with someone who was afflicted with the disease. (New York Times, March 11, 2009)

•"She has this quiet strength. Due in part to her efforts my budget was restored entirely."
—June S. Binney, a former New York official who oversaw health care in the city's correctional system. (New York Times, Dec. 15, 1991)

•"She's all about integrity and science. ... She can be tough when she needs to be, and she's going to need to be real tough in that job."
—Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. (AP, March 11, 2009 )