Former FDA Commissioner Frank Young Dies

The physician-researcher laid the groundwork for genetic cloning and led the US Food and Drug Administration as the country faced the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Dec 2, 2019
Jef Akst
COURTESY OF THE FDA

Frank Young, who had a long career as a doctor, scientist, and government administrator, died of lymphoma on November 24 at age 88 in a hospital in Wilmington, NC, The Washington Post reports.

In the mid-1970s at Rockefeller University, Young helped discover a bacterial restriction enzyme that allowed researchers to cut and paste DNA—the basis of genetic cloning. A decade later, he moved to Washington, DC, to serve as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Ronald Reagan, a role Young called “the most important post in American medicine today,” according to the Post.

It was a pivotal time in public health. The HIV-AIDS crisis was just beginning, and some in the patient community felt that Young was not taking sufficient steps to expedite the delivery of a treatment to patients. “Frank Young was going to be the good guy who would take the heat for making courageous decisions,” San Francisco AIDS activist Martin Delaney said in 1988, according to the Post. “But in reality, he’s been as chicken as they come.”

Yet Young did implement changes to the agency’s procedures for reviewing new drug applications to streamline the process, with some experimental AIDS therapies reaching patients in about half of the eight-to-nine-year average that it then took for new drugs to hit the market.

Young told The Washington Post in 1989 that he didn’t lose sleep over the criticisms levied at him. “I love to be in the vortex of controversy,” he said.

That same year, a new kind of controversy drove him from the agency. After it became apparent that some FDA employees were accepting bribes from drug companies, Young left and took positions at the Department of Health and Human Services and then at the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the National Disaster Medical System. At the time of his death, he was a biotech and pharma consultant and served as executive vice president for regulatory affairs at the biotech company TissueTech.

Young is survived by five children and 16 grandchildren. His wife Leanne, whom he was married to for 51 years, died in 2008.

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist. Email her at jakst@the-scientist.com