The good news comes when nobody hears about Dr. Frank Young '53 and his work.
Young coordinates medical and health needs for the Office of Emergency Preparedness, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. When an earthquake rips apart southern California or floodwaters cover the Great Plains, Young mobilizes the necessary medical and health provisions and tells the Department of Defense and Office of Veterans Affairs just how they need to respond.
Young himself joins the sixty percent of his workforce that heads out the door in the event of a disaster. Once he's reached the site, he also directs a corps of Minutemen and
Minute women national disaster emergency crews that arrive within twelve hours. There's even a special mortuary unit, and when floods ravaged the Southeast earlier this year, the unit searched through
old dental records to identify the bodies that had been upturned and then put them back in the ground before the corpses began spreading disease.
Such direct responsibility for the quality of people's lives is a major change for Young, who spent more than a quarter of a century in academia. A professor of genetics at Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the former dean of the University of Rochester Medical School, Young was
also one of the country's leading geneticists.
“I loved the lab and the work we did was important,” he says, “but my per minute effect on people's lives these days is so much greater now.”
Young's lab work was in the middle of what he calls “one of the great scientific revolutions of the twentieth century”-the mapping and cloning of DNA Young focused his work in his Rochester lab on pathogenicity, or how bacteria causes disease.
Young says there were four main breakthroughs in the early 1970s that allowed scientists to begin understanding what he calls the “mechanization of disease.” Scientists learned how to:
- transform bacteria into DNA,
- break the DNA apart at specific locations,
- discover the enzymes that will glue the DNA back together at these locations, and
- find the self-replicating elements in the bacteria.
These discoveries allowed scientists to figure out which genes cause which diseases. Once a gene has been isolated, through recombination (cloning) it can reproduce to a mass of up to thirty percent of the organism it came from. Such gene therapy has been a boon for leukemia patients, who need to replace the red blood cells the disease
A deeply religious man, Young had to think hard to understand just how he felt about cloning genes and scientifically reproducing the essence of life. “I would never want to put myself in the place of God,” Young says, “but I came to understand that all the enzymes we were working with are produced naturally in the body.”
In addition, Young says, “Genes move from molecule to molecule and organism to organism all the time,” so he wasn't doing anything that had not previously occurred in nature. He and his researchers were simply making nature work for them to help fight disease. Nevertheless, Young went through nine months of serious introspection before understanding his place in the natural hierarchy.
Young has long believed that the object of science isn't to find an absolute truth. In a 1973 article he wrote, “We stand as pygmies on the shoulders of giants, sifting our observation through the grid of human prejudice, to approximate truth, not to sacrifice it on the altar of our ego, but to serve mankind.” For Young, science can only provide approximations of the truth. If it's absolute truth one is looking for, he suggests a look at the Bible and the canon.
“I'm very interested in the collision of science, society, and theology,” Young says. “And I also believe in the theological connection one gets through a life of service.”
When Margaret Heckler, then the secretary of Health and Human Services, asked Young to lead the Food and Drug Administration in 1984, Young leapt at the opportunity.
Running the FDA was a “scientist's dream,” since the job allowed Young to approve many drugs that had been outcomes of his own basic research. He oversaw the testing and eventual marketing of the human growth hormone as well as new products to treat leukemia, and he was at the center of the controversy surrounding new treatments for AIDS. His administration decided to expedite the approval of treatments such as AZT and the blood test for the HIV antibody.
Eventually Young became deputy assistant secretary at Health and Human Services and the chief advisor for the assistant secretary of environment and science at HHS. Today, Young is one of only fifty-six flag officers at HHS and has gained the
two star rank of rear admiral-an honor that helps when he has to give orders to the Defense Department.
Since the government paid for the bulk of Young's medical education, he sees his work as a means of paying back a long-overdue loan. And for a scientist who believes so strongly in serving the human race, few jobs could be so satisfying.