Profiling the 50 Most: FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg

Dr. Margaret Hamburg is exceptionally qualified for her new job as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner by her training and experience as a medical doctor, scientist and public health executive.

Dr. Hamburg graduated from Harvard Medical School, and completed her residency in internal medicine at what is now New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, one of the top-ten hospitals in the nation. She conducted research on neuroscience at Rockefeller University in New York, studied neuropharmacology at the National Institute of Mental Health on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., and later focused on AIDS research as Assistant Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In 1990, Dr. Hamburg joined the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as Deputy Health Commissioner, and within a year was promoted to Commissioner, a position she held until 1997. During her tenure she was widely praised for her initiatives, decisive leadership, and significant public health measures she carried out despite severe budget constraints and while holding academic positions at Columbia University School of Public Health and Cornell University Medical College.

Dr. Hamburg’s accomplishments as New York’s top public health official included improved services for women and children, needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV (the AIDS virus), and the initiation the first public health bio-terrorism defense program in the nation. Her most celebrated achievement, however, was curbing the spread of tuberculosis. In the 1990s, TB resurged as a major public health threat, largely because many patients did not complete the full course of the treatment and the disease became resistant to standard drugs. Dr. Hamburg confronted the problem by sending health care workers to patients’ homes and taking other steps to make sure they completed the drug regimen. Thanks to this program, in a five-year span, the TB rate in New York City fell by 46% overall, and 86% for the most drug-resistant strains. Dr. Hamburg’s innovative approach has become a model for health departments world-wide.

In 1994, Dr. Hamburg was elected to the membership in the Institute of Medicine, one of the youngest persons to be so honored. Three years later, at the request of President Clinton, she accepted the position of Assistant Secretary for Policy and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In 2001, Dr. Hamburg became Vice President for Biological Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a foundation dedicated to reducing the threat to public safety from nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In that position, she has advocated broad reforms in public health infrastructure and policy, from local health departments to the national agency, in order to meet the dangers of modern bioterrorism as well as the threats of naturally occurring infectious diseases such as pandemic flu. Since 2005, Dr. Hamburg has served as the Initiative’s Senior Scientist. President Barack Obama nominated her for the FDA Commissioner on March 25, 2009.

Upon Dr. Hamburg’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has praised her as “an inspiring public health leader with broad experience in infectious disease, bioterrorism, and health policy,” and added that “Personally, I have been impressed by the calm and confidence Dr. Hamburg has shown in the face of a wide variety of challenges.”