An Interview with Dr. Margaret Hamburg

Jul 16, 2018

From the Nuclear Threat Initiative to the FDA, Dr. Hamburg has had a long and fruitful career.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D., reached an important turn in her career pathway in New York City in the mid-1980s. The AIDS epidemic was evolving rapidly, sparking her interest in legal, political, and ethical issues that impact the delivery of health care.

“It gave me a new way to look at ways to make a difference,” she recalls.

Dr. Hamburg, who had planned an academic career in endocrinology, changed gears.

“I went into policy and public service because I felt a calling,” she says. “I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to think about how much money I was making. I could focus on work that was meaningful to me.”

In a long, fruitful, and active career, Dr. Hamburg has tackled diverse issues, including using needle exchanges to reduce the spread of HIV as commissioner of New York’s Department of Health, preventing, detecting, and responding to biological warfare at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and streamlining food and drug safety as FDA Commissioner.

Dr. Hamburg is the recipient of the 2018 Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman Award, given by the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation to a woman in science or medicine who has left a significant mark on history and pivotally advanced the future.

Mentorship

Her first and most important role model was her mother, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, a psychiatrist and academic researcher whose pioneering work advanced understanding of mental health for children and adolescents. She was a trailblazer, the first African-American woman to graduate Yale School of Medicine.

“My mother was a very important role model for me, both as a physician and as someone who found a way to balance family and an important career and medicine, and as someone who worked to make the world a better place,” Dr. Hamburg says.

Young Peggy and her brother Eric grew up on the Stanford University campus, a vibrant mix of academia, sports, art, and culture. Her father, Dr. David Hamburg, chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“I was surrounded by interesting, highly successful and accomplished people,” she recalls.

As a young woman at Harvard Medical School, mentors were scarce.

“I wish there had been more mentors and role models for me when I was in medical school,” she says. “I was fortunate to meet Mary Wilson, who was an attending when I was doing a fourth-year sub internship, a woman I admired and wanted to emulate.”

Dr. Wilson, an infectious disease specialist who is now adjunct professor of global health and population at Harvard, became a valued colleague over the years.

Mentoring has become a passion for Dr. Hamburg as well. “At this stage in my career, I am in a unique position to be a mentor to others and I jump at the chance to mentor women about the different pathways medicine offers,” she says.

The Wage Gap

Because much of her work has been in government service, Dr. Hamburg did not experience much of the wage gap faced by women physicians in the private sector. But she has seen wage issues come into play in terms of men achieving higher positions with higher salaries.

“As you move up the ladder, the opportunities for women seem to constrict,” she says.

The FDA

Hamburg was only the second woman to lead the FDA when she was tapped by President Obama in 2009. A photograph taken of her in 2013 shows her waist deep in the rice fields of California.

“It’s symbolic of how I tried to do that job. Just wade into the mess.”


Hamburg (center right) visits a California rice farm in 2013 while Commissioner of the FDA.

She got lots of advice on how to do the job, some of it unsolicited. “People told me not to try to change the organization, it’s a huge tanker that can’t be turned around.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Hamburg devoted her work to making sweeping change, streamlining regulations, and enhancing food and drug safety.

“My greatest priority had to be investing in the institution and making certain it was well positioned for future and current challenges,” she says. “The FDA has a huge impact on people’s lives, as well as the health care system and the economy. More than 25 percent of products people buy are under the auspices of the FDA.”

The AAAS

Today, she serves as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary science membership organization and a publisher of leading-edge research through its Science journals.

Her priority in leading AAAS is to promote the use of scientific data in global decision-making.

“We are facing huge, pressing problems as a nation and a world,” she says. “If we are to make the best decisions for future generations, we have to base that on scientific data and not ideology.”