National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Engineering
Institute of Medicine
National Research Council
Office of News and Public Information
National Academy of Engineering
Back | Home
News from the National Academy of Sciences
Date: Jan. 4, 2001
Contact: Mark Chesnek, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

David A. Kessler to Receive Academy's Prestigious Public Welfare Medal

WASHINGTON – The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has selected David A. Kessler, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., to receive the Academy's most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal. Kessler served as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 1990 to 1997 where he vigorously pursued public health issues, sometimes despite opposition from powerful special-interest groups. The Academy chose Kessler for his bold leadership in controversial public health matters, such as the drug approval process and the regulation of tobacco products.

"Dr. Kessler's visionary and practical leadership has had a profound effect on our society," said R. Stephen Berry, NAS home secretary and chair of the selection committee. "He has been a tireless fighter for improving this nation's public health." Established in 1914, the Public Welfare Medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. Previous recipients include Gilbert White, Arnold Beckman, and C. Everett Koop.

"Throughout his tenure as FDA commissioner, Dr. Kessler exhibited courage and high scientific and ethical standards, allowing him to shape the agency into what it is today," said NAS President Bruce Alberts. "Using his broad knowledge and expertise in the fields of science, medicine, law, and government, he made remarkable strides in guaranteeing the well-being of our society. His legacy as commissioner has affected the lives of all U.S. citizens."

With a background in clinical medicine, education, research, administration, and law, Kessler was tapped in 1990 by President Bush to be FDA commissioner. He was reappointed by President Clinton and served until February 1997.

The most noted and widely recognized accomplishment during Kessler's tenure at the FDA is the campaign he waged against the tobacco industry. He supported the identification of nicotine as the principal addictive agent in cigarettes and the claim that manufacturers were manipulating the nicotine content of tobacco products. Manufacturers denied this claim, leading Kessler to begin a comprehensive investigation into the tobacco industry. He developed irrefutable evidence from memoranda and patents, which strengthened the case for the regulation of tobacco and impaired the industry's ability to promote tobacco use in the United States. New laws were developed for the marketing and sale of tobacco products, especially with relation to children. The industry's operations changed dramatically during Kessler's tenure, since tobacco companies were no longer able to deny nicotine's addictive properties.

Kessler also focused his efforts on ways to speed up the agency's process for approving drugs. When he was appointed commissioner, the FDA was under heavy criticism for the prolonged length of its drug approval process, especially for medications and combination drug therapies to treat AIDS patients. With support from Congress, Kessler implemented a program of user fees levied on drug manufacturers. This allowed the FDA to hire additional researchers, dramatically reducing approval time from 33 months to 19 months without increasing the agency's budget.

Kessler's earliest achievement as FDA commissioner was to oversee the implementation of mandatory nutrition information on food labels, which gave consumers the opportunity to make healthier choices in food selection. Kessler's other noteworthy actions include establishing measures to strengthen the safety of the blood supply and improving the system for reporting adverse effects from drugs, medical devices, and nutritional products.

From 1984 to 1990, Kessler served as medical director of the hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and held teaching appointments in the department of pediatrics and the department of epidemiology and social medicine. Kessler also taught food and drug law at Columbia University School of Law from 1986 to 1990.

Born on May 31, 1951, in New York City, Kessler graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree from Amherst College in 1973. He received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1978 and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School a year later. Kessler then went on to receive an advanced professional certificate from the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration in 1986. He became FDA commissioner at the age of 39.

Kessler has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor, the American Federation for AIDS Research's Sheldon W. Andelson Public Policy Achievement Award, the American Heart Association's National Public Affairs Special Recognition Award, and the March of Dimes' Franklin Delano Roosevelt Leadership Award. Kessler is also a member of the Institute of Medicine.

The NAS Public Welfare Medal, consisting of a medal and an illuminated scroll, will be presented to Kessler at the Academy's annual meeting in April 2001. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter.