The Power of One’
Weicker Celebrated Anew at NIH Building Dedication
By Carla Garnett
Sometimes the power of one multiplies everything around it exponentially, for the good of all. Such was the career of the Connecticut congressman-turned-senator-turned-governor Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., who recently became the only person for whom two NIH buildings have been named.
As NIH director Dr. Francis Collins noted at the ceremony held May 5 under a tent in the parking lot of Bldg. 4, the event must have felt like déjà vu for those who had seen NIH dedicate Bldg. 36 to Weicker in May 1991. Although that building gave its life (and campus real estate) for the advance of neuroscience, the man in whose spirit the structure was named never left the hearts and minds of NIH.
A key lawmaker for more than 20 years, Weicker is known best in biomedical research circles “for the courageous stance he took on HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and for backing up that courage with the resources to make a real difference in our ability to understand the disease and extend the lives of those it struck,” Collins said. “Buildings come and buildings go, but reputations—and sometimes, solidly built historic buildings—actually endure; this one does. So for all these reasons, the pairing of the Lowell P. Weicker personality and impact on history with Bldg. 4 is a very good fit.”
The new dedication, Collins declared, transfers “the Weicker name to one of NIH’s oldest and most distinguished buildings recently renovated to be made new again, Bldg. 4…one of six original buildings on the NIH campus.” It now houses NIAID laboratories.
After thanking friends and supporters, the honoree encouraged the audience to consider “your roles for determining the priorities of the United States” and not to underestimate “the power of one, as in you.
“My wish for this building,” Weicker said, “is that generations bring their skills, their talents together in the interest of life.”
‘Dear Friend, Great Champion’
Earlier, Collins had reminded attendees that in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt stood just a few hundred yards away from the newly dubbed Weicker Bldg. to establish NIH’s new home, saying, “‘In dedicating this institute, I dedicate it to the underlying philosophy of public health, to the conservation of life, to the wise use of the vital resources of our nation’—words that apply to Lowell Weicker as well as to NIH.” NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has known Weicker for more than 30 years, saluted the man as “a dear friend and great champion of biomedical research.”
Recalling the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when being diagnosed with the disorder was a virtual death sentence, Fauci put the honoree’s NIH legacy in perspective: “Very few politicians were courageous enough to support the scientific and public health measures necessary to address a newly recognized disease that affected mostly the disenfranchised. Sen. Weicker was one of the few and the brave. At that time, the leadership on Capitol Hill was desperately needed and Lowell provided it.”
Weicker was one of the first senators to hold congressional hearings on AIDS and led the call in the Senate for funding to address the disease. “Lowell has been truly a unique, visionary leader and a loyal friend to NIH,” Fauci noted. When Weicker served as chair of the Senate Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee, NIH’s budget grew from $4.3 billion to $6.7 billion—56 percent—in just 5 years. “A substantial part of that increase jumpstarted our research to better understand HIV/AIDS and to develop the soon-to-be-tested life-saving treatments,” Fauci said. “And that’s where Lowell came in.”
‘Enlightening Way to Proceed’
In 1986, Weicker led the legislative charge to seek $46 million to test the experimental drug AZT and to provide it to 10,000 people dying of AIDS. “At the time, this medicine was the only glimmer of hope for many patients,” Fauci explained. He recalled Weicker
saying, “‘We are confronted with an epidemic the likes of which this world has never seen and we do not have time to get into philosophical, academic or moralistic debates. We’d better do exactly what we have been told to do by those of science and medicine, which is number one, put our money into research and number two, put our money into education.’ As these words remind us, Lowell has always had a keen grasp of the importance of biomedical research and understanding how sustained investment in NIH ultimately leads to the development of therapy and vaccines for the diseases with important global health implications.”
Now, an AIDS-free generation is within the world’s sights, Fauci pointed out. “This would not have been possible without the political courage that Lowell Weicker demonstrated more than 25 years ago…Lowell’s keen intellect, bipartisanship, independence from political ideology, compassion and tenacity remain the hallmarks of his public service.”
A congressional colleague, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), reminisced about the way Senate appropriations hearings were conducted on the NIH budget in 1985 when Weicker was in charge.
Unlike House hearings, where the committee sat high on a rostrum facing testifiers below, with chairman Weicker “we all sat at the same level” around a big table, Harkin said. Each institute director would give a statement and “we’d engage in a kind of open discussion. I thought this was rather an unusual but enlightening way to proceed. It was just intellectually stimulating to engage in that kind of discussion…It was a great learning experience for me to learn about what was happening at NIH.”
‘Foresight & Inspiration’
Harkin also pointed out that Weicker “is a proud parent of the Americans with Disabilities Act and we owe him a great debt of gratitude…That’s why this recognition is timely: to honor a person who did not back down, who supported basic biomedical research through the years, through the thick and the thin, who gave courage to others to continue the fight for the public support of the National Institutes of Health and its mission. Thank you, Lowell Weicker, for your life of courage and foresight and inspiration.”
As the honoree took the podium to a standing ovation, he deflected personal praise in favor of assigning responsibility.
Progress in science, medicine and health happens “not because of buildings named after ex-politicians, but because of the people who reside in those buildings who are plodding along day after day,” said Weicker, “and because citizens participated in their government.”
Recalling the difficulties he and others met while ushering legislation for AZT funding through Congress—all while people were suffering without any real treatments—he said the course of action was clear. He challenged individuals to do likewise, to take active, crucial roles in deciding the direction government moves, based on obvious common principles such as the advance of science and good health for all.
Concluding, Weicker rephrased St. Paul’s oft-quoted observance to the Corinthians, “Faith, hope and love—these three, but the greatest of these is…hope.”