Recorded: 31 May 2003
Yeah, I didn’t want this job, I really didn’t. I believed in the genome project because I had worked in the 1980s trying to find disease genes; genes for cystic fibrosis, for Huntington’s Disease, for neurofibromatosis, very important illnesses from a physician’s perspective. And it was brutal, It was awful. It was so painful; you spent months, years, trying to chase down the answer, burning out postdocs and graduate students; you felt so bad for them because it was so hard. And you went down all of these blind alleys and you had to invent things as you went along and you never knew whether you were in the right place or the wrong place and you had nothing to guide you. This could not be the way we were going to make progress in the long run so when the genome project came along as a way of providing some sort of foundation for that kind of medical search process. I was, yeah, you know, right in that front line there saying, “let’s do it.” But I didn’t think I would have to be the one to lead it. I thought I would be able to be out there using the output of this enterprise.
Well, I had nightmares at the beginning about whether to do it at all. Again, I didn’t think this was my job, Jim was a great leader for the early stages of this. All of a sudden Jim was gone, big blowup with Bernadine Healy. “Oh my god, who is going to lead this project?” And I didn’t expect my phone to ring. But it did. And I said, no, I’m at the University of Michigan. I have a genome center, I’m happy about that. I can do stuff here that’s going to be useful, but leading this enterprise, that’s not me. Becoming a federal employee, that’s certainly not me. I turned it down, I turned it down twice. But they kept coming back and saying, you probably would be a good person to do this. And we could have somebody with a medical prospective and somebody who really understands the nature of the problem. And, you know, one day I guess I kind of came around to the prospective that turning this down and then looking back ten years later and saying, you know, I could have helped with this, I could have made it happen. How would I look at myself in the mirror? So I hated the idea of having to say yes to this in 1993. It was against everything that I thought my life was about, but it was unavoidable. It was one of those things where you sort of gradually realized, okay, you’ve just got to do this. And the idea of moving my lab which was very productive, moving it to NIH, starting up a new intramural scientific program which hadn’t existed before against all the bureaucracy, dealing with all of those issues that just seemed mountainous. And it was pretty mountainous in the first few years. It was just tough getting things going.
Francis Collins earned a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia (1970), a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University (1974), and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina (1977). While a researcher at the University of Michigan (1984-1993), he pioneered “positional cloning” methods which resulted in the Collins team and their collaborators isolating the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and others.
In 1993 he accepted leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by becoming Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NHGRI). With Dr. Collins as head of the NHGRI, the HGP attained its goal of sequencing all 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.
He has attended all of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings on genomics.