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Reagan-era FDA Commissioner Frank Young dies

Published on 03/12/19 at 11:48am

Frank Young, FDA Commissioner from 1984-1989, died on 24 November. He was 88; his son, Jonathan, said the cause was lymphoma.

Young had an impressive academic career before serving in the FDA under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. During the 1970s, he was responsible for key advances in the study of bacteria which made the scientific practice of cloning possible.

Dr Young also discovered an enzyme with his colleague Gary Wilson at the University of Rochester. It was called the “restriction enzyme” and could be used as genetic scissors to alter the genetic makeup of DNA. This was published in a paper in 1975, and became widely cited in the fields of genetics and biotechnology.

He later served as Dean of the Rochester’s medical and dental schools, before taking over as FDA Commissioner.

Under Reagan, the FDA faced budget cuts while it tried to deal with the HIV-AIDS crisis that was ravaging the country. At the time, there was no effective treatment for AIDS and Young came under criticism for delaying the introduction of experimental drugs. He also personally opposed the approval of at-home testing kits for AIDS as he felt it was unsafe.

At the time the FDA’s approval process for new drugs took about eight to nine years, and Young streamlined this to allow some experimental AIDS treatments to be introduced to patients in about half the time. However, San Francisco AIDS activist Martin Delaney, said that Young was as “chicken as they come” in his dealing with the HIV-AIDS crisis.

His tenure at the FDA ended in 1989, when three employees at the government agency pleaded guilty to taking bribes for companies seeking approval for generic drugs, although he was not implicated.

He went on to become an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services and then the Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the National Disaster Medical System, a multiagency partnership that responds to major disasters. In this role he helped coordinate the responses to hurricanes and floods and even the 1995 Oklahoma bombing.

Dr Young leaves behind five children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

Conor Kavanagh

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