News & Events
David A. Kessler, M.D. - Einstein College of Medicine
DAVID A. KESSLER, M.D.
COMMISSIONER, FOOD AND DRUGS
EINSTEIN COLLEGE OF MEDICINE
PALM BEACH, FLORIDA
FEBRUARY 7, 1993
Good evening and thank you.
I'm delighted to be here, back with the Einstein family.
It's especially nice to be at an occasion honoring Dom and
Penny Purpura--colleagues and friends.
I left Einstein a couple of years ago, but I haven't left it
behind. I would like to believe that every day in my work as FDA
Commissioner I call upon the values, the ethos, that make Einstein
such an extraordinary place.
I'm talking about a sense of mission. About a calling. About
the belief that each person can make a difference. That's what
Einstein is all about.
I can do no better as a public servant than to bring those
values to my work.
Last year when I spoke to the Einstein graduating class, I
drew the distinction between a profession and a calling.
A profession, I said, is something you train to do. Something
that you can change. Something that can get to be rather routine.
A calling is something that captures you. Something that
frames your decisions and goals.
It's not something you leave behind when you pack up in New
York and move to Washington. It's your compass-- your very
The pieces come from the people you've met and the places
you've been, but the craftsmanship is your very own.
It's what you return to to gauge your personal sense of
success--whether you are running a hospital or a large federal
agency responsible for assuring the safety of our foods, our drugs,
our blood supply, our vaccines.
When I left a rewarding, challenging, and comfortable position
at Einstein a couple of years ago to go to Washington, there were
some eyebrows raised in New York.
Some whispering, I'm sure.
What was I getting myself into? After all, government service
was not held in the highest esteem.
Wherever you turned, you heard that the American people had
grown hard and cynical. That there was widespread disenchantment
with our institutions, our elected representatives, and with an
American dream that seemed to have failed.
Public service was part of that dream, and it was no longer
perceived as a noble calling. That's what you heard. But don't
you believe it.
During the past couple of years, since I became FDA
Commissioner, I have had many wide-ranging conversations with my
FDA colleagues. They, as much as I, are concerned with the public
perception of our calling, and they, as much as I, sense the
beginnings of a change in the national mood--a shift away from
those negative values that have occupied American thought over the
The cynicism is still there, both inside and outside public
service, but I sense a growing movement toward a practical form of
And that strikes a responsive chord with me because it
represents those values that I have tried to bring to my work as a
physician, an administrator, and now as a doctor in the public
Our first priority when I came to the FDA was to restore the
Agency's sense of pride.
Not the sort of pride that has been in fashion lately. Not
the pride that your wear on your sleeve for others to admire and
applaud. Not your pride in an expensive car or the school you send
your kids to. Not even the justifiable pride of achievement in
your chosen profession.
What we had to instill at the FDA was the private sort of
pride that is always kept hidden, the pride that comes to your
rescue during those dark times of the soul when doubts and
disappointments go bump in the night.
It's the pride that comes with knowing that you have set your
own course, and have stuck with it.
Idealistic? Yes, but practical as well.
For no worthwhile undertaking was ever translated into action
without the moral support of that private sort of pride.
In the actions we have taken over the last couple of years--
getting important drugs out quicker, revising the food label or
insisting that our food and drug laws are adhered to-- we gave our
people at the agency something to be proud about. We gave them a
cause in which to be confident.
We gave them a place where, once again, the good guys could
I went to Washington because I saw an opportunity to make a
difference. I saw an opportunity to build on what I had done in
the past and stay true to my calling.
A physician--or anyone--in the public service enjoys the most
fascinating career that a person could ask for.
For a doctor, the only patient is the body politic, and the
limit of responsibility is nothing less than the health of the
nation. And the well-being of the nation, along with the well-
being of public service, rests in the simple recognition that
problems can be solved if we are willing to face our
Real human progress depends not so much on inventive ingenuity
as on conscience. And just as a philosopher may believe in the
perfectibility of man, my conscience leads me to believe in the
perfectibility of public service.
But it must be the type of public service that not only draws
upon the most rigorous of analytical methodology, but also
articulates what we stand for and where we are going.
It must be the type of public service that seeks
responsibility, not power...that seeks trust, not authority...that
seeks integrity, not rank or privilege.
It must be the type of public service that equates its mission
with public interest, not special interests.
The type of public service that enlists people of courage--
those who are willing to resist public and political pressure.
It must be the type of public service that enlists people of
judgment--those who are willing to take risks, who are willing to
admit past mistakes and are willing to correct them.
The type of public service that enlists people who are
dedicated to the principles set out in the laws of the nation.
And it must be the type of public service that makes the
complex decisions, as Emerson said, "on a few strong instincts and
a few plain rules."
The decisions that occupy me every day at the FDA are on the
surface very different from those I confronted when I was at
Then, no one woke me in the middle of the night because a
tampering had occurred that some very troubled person was putting
poison in over-the counter capsules.
But scratch the surface and you will find that what we are
working so hard to accomplish at the FDA is not so different from
the mission that Einstein has succeeded at so well.
The very things for which I admire Einstein--and which the
Purpuras embody--are the foundation of my work today.
I'm talking about the ability to scale the twin peaks of
scientific excellence, and social medicine and public health. Some
may think that those two are incompatible.
The scientists, manipulating test tubes and petri dishes and
machines in the exquisite isolation of the laboratory. Worrying
about cell counts or pieces of DNA.
Outside the laboratory, in the inner cities of this country,
in the hospitals, are the human faces of this country's health care
The faces that dedicated public health workers cannot shut
out. Dom and Penny have shown that both roads can be taken.
They have ensured Einstein's commitment to serving this
country as a premier biomedical research institution.
Every day, it seems, I come to realize more and more how much
this country's welfare depends on a solid basic science research
How much we at FDA depend on the work done at places like
Einstein. Let me give you a recent example.
Some of you may recall that a couple of months ago we approved
the drug Taxol for ovarian cancer. We were able to bring that
promising drug through the review process in record time: five
A good part of the reason was that we had the data we needed
to evaluate the product.
And a big part of the reason we had the data is Dr. Susan
Horowitz, a medical researcher at Einstein.
Back in the 1970s, many scientists had given up on Taxol. It
seemed to have promise as a cancer therapy but it also had problems
that seemed insurmountable to many scientists.
But Dr. Horowitz pushed on, discovering Taxol's unique
mechanism of action. Her pioneering work got other researchers
excited about Taxol again, and the result is a product that can
help cancer sufferers around the world.
But beyond any single product, the Purpuras have recognized
the importance of university-based research for basic science
These discoveries generate applied technologies, which in turn
create jobs, spawn new businesses, develop new therapies that cure
diseases, that help people, people who pay taxes-- taxes that can
be plowed back into new basic science discoveries.
Basic research is a major American resource for the 21st
century. It's our collective strength, our answer to global
competition, our economic lifeline.
It's the product of a creative genius that has been nurtured
for decades, and has taken hold. Some people in Washington, and
elsewhere, argue that more targeted research--designed with a
specific purpose--should take precedence over basic research.
They risk making a terrible mistake.
Our commitment to basic research has served this country well
for nearly 50 years. Extremely well.
But with people like Dom and Penny as champions of basic
research and with the example they have set, I believe common
sense can prevail.
They also set an example in that second peak I mentioned:
social medicine, advancing the public's health.
Recently, Dom gave a speech in which he observed that two
"cataclysmic events" had occurred in 1992: One, the dissolution of
the Soviet Union and two, creation of a family medicine department
It is the first family medicine department in a New York City
medical school, and it reaffirms Einstein's leadership and enduring
commitment to social medicine and improving the health of all
Most of you know, the Albert Einstein School of Medicine was
founded after World War II, largely in reaction to the horrors of
It was the first medical school under Jewish auspices. And
its founding principle was nondiscrimination.
When Albert Einstein gave permission for the medical school to
be named after him, he said: "This enterprise is the greatest
contribution the Jewish community has undertaken for the common
weal of the American people."
He was speaking of all the American people. I see the pre-
eminence of nondiscrimination being revived these days in
Washington--in the name of inclusion.
That is what Einstein is about, what Dom and Penny are about
and what I believe public service is all about.