Anthony Fauci could be called the science face of the nation. He is the man you are most likely to see on U.S. television explaining the facts behind HIV/AIDS, bio-terrorism or pandemic flu.
Since 1984 Fauci has directed the federally funded National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has a staff of 1,300 and an annual budget of $4.3 billion. "Our mission and mandate is to apply the science we do for health in this country, but well beyond that for the global health global community."
Fauci seems very much a man on a mission. During a typical 15-hour workday he attends back-to-back meetings, writes and reviews scientific articles, and confers with researchers on the National Institutes of Health campus.
Fauci says his drive comes from his upbringing. He grew up in an Italian American neighborhood of New York and lived above the drug store his father owned. "I was always very inquisitive, always interested in solving puzzles and answering questions."
Fauci was good at science, but also loved sports and played basketball for his high school team. He credits his strict Jesuit-led Christian education for teaching him the value of public service. "It was almost understood that if you wanted to be the best person you possibly could be, the important thing in life is what you do for others."
Fauci graduated from medical school at the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Rather than be drafted into the military, he requested an assignment to the Public Health Service.
In 1968 he started working at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He stayed at the agency and became an expert in how disease affects the human immune system. Then a mysterious medical event in 1981 transformed his life. "We began to see these strange cases of gay men with unusual opportunistic diseases reported In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco."
That then-unnamed disease that Fauci predicted would explode far beyond the confines of the homosexual community was AIDS. Early on in the epidemic, Fauci re-directed the work of his laboratory to study the disease. "From 1981 to 1984 we didn't even know what we were dealing with and did observational studies of what this disease was doing to the immune system."
Fauci calls this time the "dark days" of AIDS. He became the target of activist criticism, was burned in effigy and blamed for the government's inaction getting experimental drugs to the hands of people, desperate for treatment.
Recalling a protest staged outside his office, he says that instead of asking police to arrest the disruptive group, he invited the leaders upstairs to talk. "And I listened to what they were saying. Putting aside the theater, the smoke bombs and the demonstrations, what they said made perfect sense."
Fauci says this was the beginning of a dialogue that has lasted for many years. "That experience really served as the paradigm of what activism can do in any disease."
While HIV/AIDS is not Anthony Fauci's only focus, it has remained the top priority at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "When the virus was discovered it allowed us to make a quantum leap in the kinds of studies we could do; and then as the first drugs came on, gradually we saw some hope."
But he says it wasn't until the mid-1990s that combinations of drugs helped make it possible to manage the disease, at least for people who could afford the drugs.
This isn't always the case in developing countries, where drugs are in short supply and expensive. Fauci says this reality demands greater public attention. "There is a whole other world out there besides us here in the United States and there are millions and millions of preventable deaths."
For Fauci these are fighting words.
Following a trip to Uganda he took his battle against HIV/AIDS to the White House. The result was the President's $15-billion, 5-year Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, approved in 2003 by the U.S. Congress.
Now 66 years old, Anthony Fauci is still tireless in his dedication to saving lives. And he does so, he says, as a scientist driven by a life-long quest for knowledge and excellence.