His most recent and prestigious award is the Public Welfare Medal, awarded last January by the National Academy of Sciences for the impressive changes that he initiated during his term as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner. He is currently serving as the dean of Yale Medical School.
Kessler, born in New York City on May 31, 1951, simultaneously obtained an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1979 and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1978. He also received an advanced professional certificate from the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration in 1986. With so many titles to his name, it’s no wonder Kessler has achieved so much during his life and that he would now choose to share his knowledge and experiences with young minds at Yale University.
Kessler recently published a book on his work with the FDA, “A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle With a Deadly Industry,” in January 2001, and the paperback edition will be released on Tuesday. “I talk a lot about Amherst in my book,” Kessler said. “A whole lot.”
According to Kessler, his advisor, Professor of Biology Oscar Schotté, and Professor of History Henry Steele Commager were extraordinary role models who have continued to influence him throughout his life. His reasons for writing the book go much deeper than just exposing the workings of the tobacco industry. “What I wanted to do was try to explain, especially to young people, what it was like taking on a big challenge,” said Kessler. “Tobacco was something of a metaphor. You work hard, you get big jobs and the question becomes what you’re going to do with these big jobs and what you stand for and how you lead. What becomes important are your personal qualities, especially when they come after you the way Big Tobacco did.”
Kessler has wonderful memories of his time here at Amherst. “I spent a lot of time searching for frogs in Western Massachusetts because I had to go find frogs with tumors,” said Kessler. “I spent most of my time studying cancers in amphibians [including] frogs and I did it in the basement in Webster and I had great teachers and great mentors.”
His academic life was equally exciting. “I was an independent scholar, which meant that for my junior and my senior years, I didn’t take many courses,” said Kessler. His advisor while at Amherst was Schotté, who is, according to Kessler, “one of the great developmental biologists.” He also took a course, “American Enlightenment,” with Commager, who was a great American historian. His experience at Amherst prepared him tremendously for later challenges in life.
“My freshman year, as soon as I came to Amherst, that spring there was a strike,” said Kessler. “Classes were cancelled early because of the Vietnam War. It was a time that shook all of us and it probably gave us the confidence that we were able to take on issues.”
The College was still single-sex at the time Kessler graduated, but he met his wife here: Paulette Kessler is a member of the Smith College class of 1974. Coeducation was still a highly debated subject while he was a student here; the students were in favor of coeducation, while the Trustees were opposed. Kessler is personally in agreement with the College’s decision to become coed. “Going to Amherst gave me a privilege and I think men and women should have that opportunity and should be able to take advantage of that privilege,” he said.
Kessler was appointed as the FDA commissioner in 1990 when he was only 39 years old, an extraordinary feat, to work with former presidents George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton. “I really never looked at it in terms of that [when] I was young,” said Kessler. “These jobs require a tremendous amount of energy.”
With the passion and excitement of a young man, Kessler changed the FDA significantly. “It’s not getting the job that’s important; it’s what you’re going to do with the job,” he said. “It’s a very difficult kind of position and you have to call upon every experience that you have in order to do what you have to do.”
At the time of his appointment, Kessler was running a hospital in the Bronx, the Hospital of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and he was also writing articles and teaching about food and drug regulation in law school. “In any of these jobs, there is a question: how do you get these jobs?” said Kessler. “I had worked as a volunteer [and] as an intern in the United States Senate Health Committee and that helped, as well as the fact that I was writing in the area, teaching in the area and I had considerable managerial experience.”
His achievements in his time in office include the Nutrition Facts label, which was made compulsory for all packs of foods produced in the country; Kessler also sped up the approval process for drugs and products that were meant to treat mysterious and life-threatening diseases.
Got a light?
But his most prominent achievement
was the regulation of tobacco products and, in his book, he writes about the challenges
he faced. “The tobacco industry was a
formidable opposition,” Kessler stressed repeatedly. “They literally had people put on its payroll-all the lawyers and public relations experts in Washington. So they started investigating us.”
The tobacco industry meant war. “They harassed charges against our investigators. They got Congress to hold hearings that were investigating the FDA.”
Kessler never would have guessed he’d be at the center of such a controversy. “It’s interesting, when I went to the FDA, tobacco was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t plan on taking on the tobacco industry,” Kessler said.
He developed an interest, however, when a young man in his office approached him about it one day. “I said he was crazy,” said Kessler. “I didn’t know it at the time, but his father was dying of cancer.”
However, Kessler looked into it and what he found convinced him that it was time to take a closer look at the activities of the tobacco industry. “Nicotine was a drug and [the tobacco industry] kept that information secret, because they didn’t want the FDA to regulate it,” Kessler said. “They made sure that light cigarettes had the right dose of nicotine, so that smokers stayed addicted.”
As they presented their findings to the general public, they “changed forever how the tobacco industry is viewed,” according to Kessler. “If you want to change public policy, it’s very important that you change public opinion,” he said. They were able to issue a regulation, but ultimately, “we lost to the Supreme Court by one vote-five to four. I was absolutely disappointed.”
Kessler eventually retired from his position in 1997. “I had done what I had set out to do,” he said. We had taken on the tobacco industry [and] the labels; we sped up the drug approval process. I really had done what I wanted to do and I thought that it was time to let someone else come in and run the FDA.”
Head of the class
He was not unemployed for long, however. Merely a week after he announced his retirement, he received a call from Yale President Richard C. Levin, who offered him a position as the dean of the Yale Medical School, a position he accepted and still holds. Kessler said he enjoys his work there very much and has nothing but admiration for the members of the student body.
“The one thing about Yale is that students love being at the medical school because there is no competition, no exams,” said Kessler. “It’s all about learning and becoming the best doctor that you can be. They understand that people will put their lives in their hands one day and tell them things that they will tell no one else.”
Kessler also loves his students, whom he describes as “very dedicated towards public service. The day that the bombing started in Kosovo, students came into my office and asked if they could go assist in taking care of the refugees,” he said. “At the end of the week, they were on their way.”
In January of 2001, the National Academy of Sciences chose Kessler to receive the Academy’s most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal. Established in 1914, the Public Welfare Medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. This award, consisting of a medal and an illuminated scroll, was presented to him at the Academy’s annual meeting in April of 2001. Kessler was chosen because of his spirited leadership in controversial public health matters, such as the drug approval process and the regulation of tobacco.
“The award was a wonderful thing because I had no idea that I was being considered for it and the National Academy of Sciences is, to me, the most prestigious scientific organization. So it was a great thing when I got that phone call!” he said.
Dr. Kessler and his wife currently live in New Haven, Conn., with their two children, Elise and Ben. Elise is a sophomore here at Amherst and Ben is a junior at the Hopkins School in New Haven.