Staunton Native Dr. Francis Collins, ‘Rock Star of Science,’ Retires as NIH Director

“The scientific community’s response to this worst pandemic in more than a century has just been amazing. People have dropped everything. They have worked 24/7 against great obstacles … and amazing things have happened.” -Dr. Francis Collins, Dec. 16, 2021

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, has retired after 12 years, one of the longer terms in that position. Perhaps not many people know or care, but projects he and his colleagues have researched over the years have touched us all.

Dr. Collins is a Virginian, growing up in Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) located in the Shenandoah Valley. He was homeschooled until 6th grade by parents who left their own contribution to the arts community of the area (including creating the Oak Grove outdoor theater in Augusta County). He then went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Virginia, a PhD from Yale and an MD from the University of North Carolina.

Dr. Collins is “a physician-geneticist noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book. He served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH from 1993-2008” (NIH website).

“Amazing things have happened. … one was vaccines. And the 25 years that went into figuring out how mNRA might potentially be used in this space was in exactly the right place. With the work at our vaccine center … to take what otherwise would be a five-year process, if you were lucky, and turn it into an eleven-month amazing success story on developing vaccines.” -Dr. Francis Collins, Dec. 16, 2021

He plays guitar and piano and is in a band made up of doctors and scientists. He rides a Harley. He served under three presidents. He is a self-identified “serious Christian” who founded the BioLogos Foundation to “contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith.” He and his wife talk shop at the dinner table and open their home to many who have shared meals with them.

The CBS “Sunday Morning” profile above only takes seven minutes to watch, giving a brief overview on this remarkable, humble man who has helped lead the U.S. through the Covid pandemic.

“We were needing to find, as fast as we could, treatments for people who were sick. And there were a lot of things out there that were being advertised as this is the answer and that’s the answer, and most of them weren’t. We needed rigorous science. That’s a place where we needed to have all the partners together.” -Dr. Francis Collins, Dec. 16, 2021

He has mentored many, but Dr. Collins humbly suggested they were mentoring each other. He has shown that a scientist can also be a man of faith without compromising either, and his esteem among colleagues who considered him a friend shows that we should all be so fortunate to have a colleague and friend like Francis Collins. One of his closest friends is Dr. Anthony Fauci who is among dozens who pay tribute during the 1.5-hour thank-you video filmed on December 16, 2021, with a bipartisan lineup that spans doctors, scientists, presidents, singers and musicians, and others in Dr. Collins’ huge universe of mankind.

“Your combination of intellectual brilliance, unflinching scholarship, unquestionable integrity, and deep sense of humanity is apparent to all who interact with you. Your leadership of the greatest biomedical research institution in the world is recognized throughout the world. You have never retreated from tackling difficult problems, and you have always been supportive of us directors.” -Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director

Not to worry … we’re not losing this brilliant man of science. Noting that it’s “good to have new vision” in explaining his departure as Director, he is returning to the lab to continue work with human genome project research. Dr. Collins can look at his leadership with a sense of accomplishment and pride. We are fortunate to have the genius of such men who work and sacrifice to help protect humankind.

We thank Dr. Collins for all he has done for our country and the world.

“During Francis’ time as our director of NIH … he hired 11 of the 12 current women leaders. He gave women a voice at the table.” -Dr. Diana Bianchi, Director, NICHD

A take-off on “The Night Before Christmas” as a farewell to Francis Collins from U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)….

‘Twas the night before retirement and throughout Building 1
Not a scientist was stirring, all the research was done.
The microscopes were nestled away in the lab,
After 12 years of work there was no more to be had.

The goggles were hung in the cabinet with care
In hopes that Francis Collins soon would be there.
Francis made great discoveries, served three presidents,
Found the gene for Huntington’s and away disease went.

He mapped the genome and funded CAR-T.
He hired 21 directors, but none were Fauci.
He tackled the brain and Cancer Moonshot,
He targeted medical challenges and hit the right spot.

He came to the Hill with great success
NIH funding increased and he said, thank you; God bless.
Then 2020 came along with Covid-19
Let me take a moment to set the scene.

The world was on lockdown. We were confined to our homes
But that didn’t stop Francis from studying chromosomes.
He continued to work, socially distanced from all.
When he logged in on Zooms they’d ask why not a call?

He told them of breakthroughs; they said, you’re on mute.
He had velour track pants on beneath his blue suit.
Then more rapid than reindeer, with warp-speed they came
NIH researchers celebrated and shouted their names.

Now Pfizer, now Moderna, create a vaccine
Use medical research to end quarantine.
Flatten the curve, send the message to all
Slow the spread, slow the spread, and Covid will fall.

These years have been hard. Francis is due a vacation.
But the thing he wanted most – emergency use authorization.
Come on, team, Francis said, we have a great opportunity
If we vaccinate more, we can reach herd immunity.

Due to his leadership we’ve become Covid wiser
In hopes we’ll all be protected by something like Pfizer.
We’ve had treatments, and vaccines, and thanks to research
Francis led us to many from atop his high perch.

As Francis’ tenure at NIH draws to an end
We must say goodbye to one of the best of our friends.
And I know he’ll exclaim as he and Diane drive out of sight,
“Good luck to you all. Keep up the good fight!”


-YouTube: A Virtual Farewell Tribute to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins – A who’s who of faces thanking Dr. Collins and wishing him well. It’s truly worth watching.

-NPR: Retiring NIH director Francis Collins warns of enormous omicron wave

-NPR: Francis Collins on medical advances, vaccine hesitancy and Americans’ ill health : Shots – Health News

-Nature: Science misinformation alarms Francis Collins as he leaves top NIH job

NIH cover photo

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