Midway through his first year as a graduate student in English Literature at Harvard, Harold Varmus had a dream that terrified him. He was an English professor - the job he was training for - but missed a day of lecturing due to illness. His students were enthralled with the news that there would be no class. Upon waking, Varmus thought that if he were a doctor, no one would be happy if he didn't show up for work. And with that thought, Varmus redirected his curiosity first to medicine, then to science, and finally to running the largest biomedical institution in the world, the National Institutes of Health.
Varmus originally planned on becoming a doctor like his father as he grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. He enjoyed the outdoors - fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter - but was inept on the football and baseball fields. He turned to reading when he attended the local public schools that were dominated by team sports.
In 1957, Varmus began pre-med studies at Amherst College but was seduced by the academic life. He drifted from science to English literature, got involved in politics, and ran the college newspaper. After completing his senior thesis on Charles Dickens, he packed up for graduate school at Harvard with a Wilson fellowship in hand.
After leaving graduate school, Varmus studied medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Initially attracted by practicing medicine abroad, an apprenticeship in a mission hospital in Bareilly, India tempered this desire, and he switched to basic medical research. He first experienced life in the lab as a Clinical Associate at NIH studying gene regulation in bacteria.
A year later in 1970, Varmus went to the University of California, San Francisco to study tumor viruses with Mike Bishop. At the time, many scientists thought that these viruses caused cancer by injecting their genes into the host's own genome. Bolstering this view, viral genes from the tumor viruses were found in infected animals. But Varmus and Bishop found that these viral genes had been stolen from the animals in the first place. The genes that caused cancer came from within - they were simply damaged. For this work, Varmus and Bishop shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1989.
Varmus stayed at UCSF until 1993 when he left to run the National Institutes of Health. Though his friends thought he didn't have the patience for the job - and he had no administrative experience outside of his own lab - Varmus stroked the egos of Congressmen of both parties enough to increase the NIH's budget from 11 billion to 16 billion dollars. And he succeeded in raising money while remaining committed to basic science - research that's aimed at understanding life, not targeted directly at curing diseases.
Despite winning a Nobel Prize and sitting next to Hillary Clinton during a State of the Union address, most people in and out of Washington don't know who he is. The student newspaper at Harvard dubbed him "Dr. Who" after he was selected to give the commencement address, and the customers in his local coffee shop mistook him for a bum when he walked in wearing his old, stinky cycling gear.
Dr. Varmus currently runs the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he is President and Chief Executive Officer, in New York City. He is married to Constance Casey, a journalist, and they have two sons, Christopher and Jacob.