Harold E. Varmus

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Harold Varmus
Born Harold Eliot Varmus
(1939-12-18) December 18, 1939 (age 80)
Oceanside, New York, U.S.
Fields Cell biology
Alma mater
Known for
Notable awards
Spouse Constance Louise Casey (m. 1969)
Children 2

Harold Eliot Varmus (born December 18, 1939) is an American Nobel Prize-winning scientist and the 14th Director of the National Cancer Institute, a post to which he was appointed by President Barack Obama.[4] He was a co-recipient (along with J. Michael Bishop) of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes. He also serves as one of three co-Chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.


Varmus was born to Beatrice, a social service worker, and Frank Varmus, a physician, Jewish parents of Eastern European descent, in Oceanside, New York.[5][6] In 1957, he graduated from Freeport High School in Freeport, NY and enrolled at Amherst College, intending to follow in his father's footsteps as a medical doctor, but eventually graduating with a B.A. in English literature.[5] He went on to earn a graduate degree in English at Harvard University in 1962 before changing his mind once again and applying to medical schools.[7] He was twice rejected from Harvard Medical School. That same year, he entered the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and later worked at a missionary hospital in Bareilly, India and the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.[5] As an alternative to serving militarily in the Vietnam War, Varmus joined the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health in 1968.[7] Working under Ira Pastan, he researched the regulation of bacterial gene expression by cyclic AMP. In 1970, he began postdoctoral research in Bishop's lab at University of California, San Francisco.[5] There, he and Bishop performed the oncogene research that would win them the Nobel Prize. He became a faculty member at UCSF in 1972 and a professor in 1979.[5] In 1989, Bishop and Varmus were awarded the Nobel Prize.[8] Varmus described the work in his Nobel lecture.[9]

From 1993 to 1999, he served as Director of the National Institutes of Health. As the NIH director, Varmus was credited with nearly doubling the research agency's budget.[7] From 2000 to 2010, he was President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He received $2,557,403 salary/compensation from the charity, which is the most money given by any charity to the head of that charity, according to Charity Watch.[10] He was also the Chairman of the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. From 2002 to 2005, he served as a trustee of Columbia University.

On January 12, 2010, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center announced that Varmus "has asked the MSKCC Boards of Overseers and Managers to begin a search for his successor." The announcement also stated, "Varmus indicated that he plans to continue in his present position until a successor has been identified, and he will remain the head of his laboratory in the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program at the Sloan-Kettering Institute and an active member of the teaching faculty."

On May 18, 2010, Varmus was nominated to be the director of the National Cancer Institute,[11] and he began his tenure as NCI director on July 12, 2010.[12]

Beginning during his tenure as NIH director, Varmus has been a champion of an open access system for scientific papers, arguing that scientists should have control over the dissemination of their research rather than journal editors.[7] He has advocated a system in which journals make their articles freely available on PubMed Central six months after publication.[7] He was a co-founder and chairman of the board of directors of the Public Library of Science, a not-for-profit open access publisher, and he also sits on the board of trustees of BioMed Central, a publisher of open-access journals. He currently serves on the advisory boards of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, an organization dedicated to opposing the religious right, and Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization focused on promoting sound science in American government.

He is also a 2001 recipient of the National Medal of Science, served on the board of the Science Initiative Group and received an honorary degree in 2010 from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.[13]

On March 4, 2015, Varmus submitted his resignation, effective March 31, 2015, to the President with his intention to return to New York City as the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and the New York Genome Center.[14][15] Deputy NCI Director Douglas Lowy will become Acting Director of the NCI.

Awards and honors

Personal life

Varmus is an avid bicyclist and an Advisory Committee member of Transportation Alternatives the New York City-based advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. He is also a runner, rower, and fisherman. He has been married to Constance Louise Casey since 1969, and has two sons, Jacob and Christopher. Varmus and his son Jacob Varmus, a jazz trumpeter and composer, have performed a series of concerts entitled "Genes and Jazz: The Music of Cell Biology" at the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian,[19] Boston Museum of Science, and Kennedy Center for the Arts. His brother-in-law is novelist John Casey. Varmus is a vegan.[20]


Varmus endorsed then-United States Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) for the 2008 presidential election.[21] He has been selected as one of co-chairs of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to serve in the Obama administration. He is member of the Council on Foreign Relations.[22]

He wrote an article in 2013 praising George W. Bush's initiation and implementation of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.[23][24]


  1. Reardon, Sara (2015). "Harold Varmus to resign as head of US cancer institute". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2015.17063. ISSN 1476-4687.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Harold Varmus as NCI Director - NIH Internet Archive
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Professor Harold Varmus ForMemRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-10-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. President Obama to Appoint Harold E. Varmus, M.D., to Lead National Cancer Institute, http://wayback.archive.org/web/20100527085250/http://www.cancer.gov/aboutnci/director-announced?cid=B_ND
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1989, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 1990.
  6. Biography - National Cancer Institute. Cancer.gov. Retrieved on 2013-11-24.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Jamie Shreeve. "Free Radical". Wired Magazine. June 2006. Issue 14.06.
  8. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1989". Official Nobel Prize Award Site.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. RETROVIRUSES AND ONCOGENES I. Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1989. nobelprize.org
  10. Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report, Volume Number 59, December 2011
  11. "President Obama to Appoint Harold Varmus, M.D." National Cancer Institute. Archived from the original on 2010-05-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Harold Varmus, M.D." National Cancer Institute. Archived from the original on 2014-01-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. UMMS Commencement 2010 – UMass Worcester Class of 2010 Sloan-Kettering president urges UMass Worcester graduates to ‘appreciate the process of flux’. Umassmed.edu (2008-01-24). Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
  14. Dr. Harold Varmus to Step Down as NCI Director A Letter to the NCI Community
  15. "Cornell Chronicle March 5, 2015 on Nobel laureate Harold Varmus to join Weill Cornell".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. CSHL Double Helix Medal Honoree
  17. 1989 Prize Lecture in Physiology or Medicine at NobelPrize.org
  18. The Lasker Foundation - 1982 Basic Medical Research Award
  19. Goldberger, Paul. "Swing Science". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Silicon Valley's Race to Build a Fake-Meat Burger - Grub Street
  21. Nicholas Thompson: Harold Varmus Endorses Obama February 03, 2008
  22. Membership Roster – Council on Foreign Relations. Cfr.org. Retrieved on 2012-02-17.
  23. Varmus, Harold (December 2013). "Making PEPFAR". Science & Diplomacy. 2 (4).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Harold Varmus (2009). The Art and Politics of Science. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-06128-4. OCLC 227016094. Retrieved 2015-10-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Bernadine Healy
Director of the National Institutes of Health
Succeeded by
Elias Zerhouni