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Francis S. Collins

For other people named Francis Collins, see Francis Collins (disambiguation).
Francis Collins
Director of the National Institutes of Health
Assumed office
August 7, 2009
Preceded by Raynard Kington (Acting)
Personal details
Born (1950-04-14) April 14, 1950 (age 64)
Staunton, Virginia, U.S.
Spouse(s) Diane Baker
Alma mater University of Virginia (B.S.)
Yale University (Ph.D.)
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (M.D.)
Profession Physician
Religion Evangelical Christian

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950) is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.

Before being appointed Director of NIH, Collins led the HGP and other pioneering genomics research initiatives as Director of the National Medal of Science.

Collins also has written a number of books on science, medicine, and spirituality, including the New York Times bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

After leaving the helm of NHGRI and before becoming Director of NIH, he founded and served as president of the BioLogos Foundation, which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Early years

Collins is the youngest of four sons born to the late Fletcher Collins and Margaret James Collins. Raised on a small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Collins was home schooled until the sixth grade.[1] He attended Robert E. Lee High School. Through most of his high school and college years, he aspired to be a chemist, and had little interest in what he then considered the "messy" field of biology. What he refers to as his "formative education" was received at the University of Virginia, where he earned a B.S. in Chemistry in 1970. He went on to attain a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Yale University in 1974. While at Yale, however, a course in biochemistry sparked his interest in the subject. After consulting with his old mentor from the University of Virginia, Carl Trindle, he changed fields and enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning an M.D. there in 1977.

From 1978 to 1981, he served a residency and chief residency in internal medicine at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. He then returned to Yale, where he was named a Fellow in Human Genetics at the medical school from 1981 to 1984.

Genetics research

At Yale, Collins worked under the direction of Sherman Weissman, and in 1984 they published an important paper, Directional cloning of DNA fragments at a large distance from an initial probe: a circularization method.[2] This method was named chromosome jumping, to emphasize the contrast with an older and much more time-consuming method of copying DNA fragments, called chromosome walking.[3]

He joined the University of Michigan in 1984, rising to the rank of Professor of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics. He heightened his reputation as an innovative gene hunter. His gene-hunting approach, which he named "positional cloning",[4][5] developed into a powerful component of modern molecular genetics.

In the 1980s, several scientific teams were working to identify the genes for

Genomics pioneer

In 1993, Collins accepted an invitation from NIH Director Bernadine Healy to succeed James D. Watson as Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, which became National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in 1997. As Director, he oversaw the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium,[14] which was the group that successfully carried out the HGP, the public effort that sequenced the roughly 3 billion letters in the human genetic instruction book.

In 1994, he founded NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research (DIR),[15] a collection of investigator-directed laboratories that conduct genome research on the NIH campus and has developed into one of the nation's premier research centers in human genetics. The milestones of NHGRI during the time Collins was director are documented in the article List of events in NHGRI history.

A working draft of the human genome was announced in June 2000, and Collins was joined by US President Bill Clinton and biologist Craig Venter in making the announcement.[16] Venter and Collins thus shared the "Biography of the Year" title from A&E Network.[17] An initial analysis was published in February 2001. HGP scientists continued to work toward finishing the reference version of the human genome sequence by 2003, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's seminal publication of the structure of DNA. In 2005, Collins and Venter were also honored as two of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News & World Report and the Harvard Center for Public Leadership [18] Collins's commitment to free, rapid access to genomic information helped to make all data immediately available to the worldwide scientific community.

Another major activity at NHGRI during his tenure as director was the creation of the own lab at NHGRI, which has sought to identify and understand the genetic variations that influence the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In addition to his basic genetic research and scientific leadership, Collins is known for his close attention to ethical and legal issues in genetics. He has been a strong advocate for protecting the privacy of genetic information and has served as a national leader in securing the passage of the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits gene-based discrimination in employment and health insurance.[19] In 2013, spurrred by concerns over the publication of the genome of the widely used HeLa cell line derived from the late Henrietta Lacks, Collins and other NIH leaders worked with the Lacks family to reach an agreement to protect their privacy, while giving researchers controlled access to the genomic data.[20]

Building on his own experiences as a physician volunteer in a rural missionary hospital in Nigeria,[21] Collins is also very interested in opening avenues for genome research to benefit the health of people living in developing nations. For example, in 2010, he helped establish an initiative called Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa)[22] to advance African capacity and expertise in genomic science.

While leading NHGRI, he received numerous awards and honors, including election to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Kilby International Awards recipient in 1993 and received the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 2005. In 2007, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[23] In 2008, he was awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize[24] and National Medal of Science.[25]

Collins announced his resignation from NHGRI on May 28, 2008, but has continued to maintain an active lab in the institute's intramural program.[26]

NIH Director

On July 8, 2009 President Barack Obama nominated him to the position of Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).[27] The US Senate unanimously confirmed him for this post, announced by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Aug. 7, 2009.[28]

According to Science,[29] Collins "is known as a skilled administrator and excellent communicator" and President Obama's nomination of him to lead the NIH "did not come as a big surprise", and produced many praising analysis from researchers and biomedical groups. It also found critics, mainly due to his outspoken Christian faith. Others think that this fact may prove to be positive to establish bridges with those that see gene-based research as contrary to religious values.[30] His appointment was welcomed by the CEO of the AAAS[30] and by the cardiologist and one-time head of the NIH, Bernadine Healy.[31]

In October 2009, shortly after his nomination as NIH director, Collins stated in an interview in the New York Times,“I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H., and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on.”[32]

On Oct. 1, 2009, in the second of his four appearances on The Colbert Report, Collins discussed his leadership at the NIH and other topics such as personalized medicine and stem cell research. And, in November 2011, Collins was included on The New Republic's list of Washington's most powerful, least famous people.[33][34]

Collins has undertaken a number of signature projects as NIH Director. Frustrated by the pace at which basic scientific discoveries are translated into drugs and other therapies, Collins led efforts to find ways to reengineer the translational pipeline. Those efforts culminated in the establishment of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) on Dec. 23, 2011.[35] Other important projects included increased support for Alzheimer's disease research, which was announced by HHS Secretary Sebelius and Collins in May 2012;[36] and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, announced by President Obama and Collins on April 2, 2013 at the White House. In addition, in January 2013, Collins created two new senior scientific positions as part of NIH's response to an advisory group's recommendations on Big Data and the diversity of the scientific workforce.[37] NIH also made headlines in June 2013, when Collins announced plans to reduce substantially the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research.[38]

During his tenure as NIH Director, Collins received numerous awards including the Albany Medical Center Prize in 2010, and the Pro Bono Humanum Award of the Galien Foundation in 2012.[39]

Mention of Collins' love of guitar playing and motorcycle riding can often be found in articles about him.[40] While directing NHGRI, he formed a rock band with other NIH scientists. Sometimes the band, called "The Directors," dueled with a rock band from Johns Hopkins University, led by cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein. Lyrics of The Directors' songs included spoofs of rock and gospel classics re-written to address the challenges of contemporary biomedical research.[41] More recently, Dr. Collins has used his musical skills to entertain and educate audiences at TEDMED 2012, StandUpToCancer,[42] and Rock Stars of Science.[43]


Collins has described his parents as "only nominally Christian" and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. However, dealing with dying patients led him to question his religious views, and he investigated various faiths. He familiarized himself with the evidence for and against God in cosmology, and used Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis[44] as a foundation to re-examine his religious view. He eventually came to a conclusion, and became an Evangelical Christian during a hike on a fall afternoon. He has described himself as a "serious Christian".[19]

In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins considers scientific discoveries an "opportunity to worship". In his book Collins rejects Young Earth creationism and intelligent design. His own belief is theistic evolution or evolutionary creation which he prefers to term BioLogos. He appeared in December 2006 on The Colbert Report television show and in a March 2007 Fresh Air radio interview to discuss this book.[45][46] While not outspoken on the subject, Collins seems to hold a pro-life view of the abortion issue. In a 1998 interview with Scientific American, he stated that he is "intensely uncomfortable with abortion as a solution to anything" and does not "perceive a precise moment at which life begins other than the moment of conception".[47]

In an interview with National Geographic in February 2007, John Horgan, an agnostic journalist, criticized Collins' description of agnosticism as "a cop-out". In response, Collins clarified his position on agnosticism so as not to include "earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don't find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did".[48]

Collins rejects intelligent design, and for this reason was not asked to participate in the 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Walt Ruloff, a producer for the film, claimed that by rejecting intelligent design, Collins was "toeing the party line", which Collins called "just ludicrous".[49] In 2007, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to "contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith". He served as the foundation's president until he was confirmed as director of the NIH.[50]


  • Principles of Medical Genetics, 2nd Edition, with T.D. Gelehrter and D. Ginsburg (Williams & Wilkins, 1998)
  • The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), which spent many weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list
  • The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, published in early 2010)
  • Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperOne, March 2, 2010)
  • The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions with Karl Giberson IVP Books (February 15, 2011)


  1. American Scientific Affiliation. Jul/Aug 2009.

External links

  • The BioLogos Foundation
  • NIH Bio
  • NHRGI Bio
Political offices
Preceded by
Raynard Kington
Director of the National Institutes of Health

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