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The John E. Fogarty Papers

Biographical Information

[John E. Fogarty at his desk in the U.S. House of Representatives]. [ca. 1945-1946].
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"Nothing happened to me when I was a kid that made me decide that medicine has to be improved. It's just that I feel that as long as people are sick, something has to be done to make them better. The government has to give most of the help, because there's no one else to give it. If kids are handicapped or sick and no one is going to try everything possible to help them, well, it just can't be that way."
--John E. Fogarty, quoted in Science 135 (March 2, 1962): 715

John Edward Fogarty represented Rhode Island's second district in the U.S. Congress from 1941 to 1967. As chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor and Health, Education, and Welfare (1949-1953 and 1955-1967) he championed a vast expansion of the National Institutes of Health, and sponsored legislation to fund programs for handicapped Americans and older citizens, as well as for libraries and the arts and humanities. He became known as "Mr. Public Health" for his dedication to federal support for medical research and a broad range of health programs.

Fogarty was born on March 23, 1913, in Providence, Rhode Island, to John Peter and Cora Whelan Fogarty. He was the third of their six children. The family owned a small farm in Harmony, outside of Providence, but Fogarty's father also worked as a bricklayer. John graduated from LaSalle Academy in 1930. According to the school's yearbook, he was "a very popular member of the class," quiet and easygoing, and known for his witty remarks. He had hoped to attend college, but with the Great Depression setting in, he began an apprenticeship in his father's trade, and worked as a bricklayer through the 1930s. He occasionally attended evening classes at Providence College. As he and others later noted, nothing in his early experiences piqued an interest in health care or medical research.

Fogarty's interest in politics developed through his trade union membership. He joined the International Bricklayers Union local in 1935, at a time when both labor and the Democratic Party were gaining power. Many New Deal programs focused on helping those hardest hit by the Depression, and protecting workers. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) gave most employees the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike if negotiations failed. The Bricklayers Union had existed since 1865, but this national law guaranteed them rights that transcended state or local arrangements. Fogarty served as president of his local union from 1936 to 1940. He was remembered as a talented negotiator who spoke well and could argue any point. The Allied Building Trades Council, impressed with his union leadership, recommended that Fogarty run for election to Rhode Island's second congressional district seat in 1940.

When Fogarty arrived in Washington in January of 1941 for the first session of the 77th Congress, he was focused on labor issues, especially those that affected his Rhode Island constituents who worked in manufacturing and building trades. He served on the House Naval Affairs Sub-Committee from 1941 to 1947, frequently traveling to Europe and the Pacific to assess the status of Navy personnel. In late 1944, after he was elected to his third term, Fogarty resigned briefly to enlist in a Navy Construction Battalion ("Seabees") for six weeks, going under cover to get a firsthand look at the servicemen's situation. The experience made him a lifelong advocate for enlisted troops and veterans.

In 1947, Fogarty was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee for the Department of Labor and the Federal Security Agency (which would become the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953.) Initially, he showed little enthusiasm for the non-Labor part of the assignment. But the committee chair, Frank Keefe of Wisconsin, was a staunch advocate for federal support of medical research and health care, arguing that it was in the national interest. Working with Keefe, Fogarty soon saw that the conquest of disease was an excellent cause for a New Deal Democrat who wanted to help his fellow citizens, especially the less affluent. (It also made economic sense, because chronic illness and disability drained the economy in all kinds of ways.) In 1949, Fogarty became chairman of the Labor-FSA subcommittee, where he would serve for the rest of his career.

As chair of the Labor and FSA/ HEW appropriations committee, Fogarty worked with colleagues in both political parties (including Senator Lister Hill (D-AL) and Congressman Melvin Laird (R-WI)), National Institutes of Health directors, and influential citizens groups to vastly increase the federal funding of medical research, especially through the National Institutes of Health. During his tenure, the NIH budget increased from $28.5 million in 1949 to $1.1 billion by 1966. NIH expanded from a small entity with only three named institutes (for cancer, heart, and dental research) to a large complex with six more institutes devoted to research on mental health, allergy and infectious disease, neurological disease, arthritis and metabolic disease, child health and development, and general medical sciences. In 1961, NIH also became home to the National Library of Medicine, formerly the Army Forces Medical Library.

The expansion of postwar health care and research funding was a response to several important wartime lessons. The mobilization for World War II had revealed a sobering lack of fitness among military recruits--one-third of enlistees were rejected for medical reasons. The war had also shown that targeted federal research funding could produce amazing results (penicillin, cortisone, radar, and atomic bombs, among others.) Health care and medical research were thus relatively popular and bi-partisan causes in the post-war congresses; legislators might disagree on how much to allocate, but rarely about the economic and social value of the programs. Still, Fogarty's committee and their allies in the Senate often had to convince more fiscally conservative colleagues and presidents first, that it was entirely appropriate for the federal government to fund peacetime medical research, and, second, that medical progress would be unacceptably slow unless the government funding was both generous and sustained.

Fogarty and the "health coalition" won support for large budget increases by amassing an almost unassailable body of data and testimony during their annual appropriations hearings. Fogarty's committee and its Senate counterpart (led by Lister Hill) closely questioned the NIH director and institute directors about the ongoing work and how more funding might help find new treatments faster; they listened to witnesses ranging from medical experts to parents of cancer-stricken children; and they reviewed copious facts and figures, often provided by citizen group lobbyists such as Mary Lasker, Florence Mahoney, and Mike Gorman. Although his formal education was limited, Fogarty was a quick study, and mastered a remarkable body of knowledge about medicine, public health, and research; by the mid-1950s, his colleagues often noted that nobody in the Congress could match his command of those subjects.

The rapid expansion of federal health-related budgets drew criticism as well as praise. Appropriations for NIH, in particular, grew so fast that critics and even supporters worried about whether the funds were actually needed, and whether the research grants were being used well. Several committees were appointed during the late 1950s and early 1960s to investigate. Despite charges that Congress was "force-feeding" researchers, the committee reports found little evidence that NIH researchers were wasting tax dollars.

Although Fogarty is best known as one of the "guardian angels" of NIH, he also sponsored legislation (and budgets) that expanded federal support in many other areas. He was a tireless advocate for those with developmental and physical disabilities, and was among the first to allocate research funding for conditions such as mental retardation and muscular dystrophy. Together with this he sponsored many bills to improve education and rehabilitation services for blind, deaf, and retarded children, including funds to train special education teachers. He also helped pass many bills for construction of research facilities, expansion of medical, dental, and public health programs; and construction of community mental health centers and public health centers. He became an enthusiastic advocate for international health collaboration in 1957, when he first attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva as congressional advisor to the U.S. delegation. The following year he introduced the first of several bills to establish an institute for international health research. Grants through NIH were authorized in 1960, although the institute--now the Fogarty International Center for Advanced Studies in the Health Sciences--was created only after his death. Fogarty would attend six more World Health assemblies and remain involved with international health issues. From the late 1950s, Fogarty was also a supporter of federal funding for libraries, both public and medical. He repeatedly introduced bills to establish the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Older Americans Act, both finally passed in 1965. He was also an advocate for other major Great Society programs such as Medicare and the Economic Opportunity Amendments.

Fogarty was popular in his home state and in election years campaigned as "Everybody's Congressman." He returned to Rhode Island most weekends while Congress was in session to spend time with his family and his constituents. However, letters among his papers show that a wide spectrum of Americans, from Washington insiders to average workers, regarded him as the "go-to guy" for any sort of health or welfare issues. He wielded considerable influence and had a reputation for getting things done. Yet throughout his career, he remained an unusually modest and low-key politician; he rarely granted interviews or issued press releases, or attended Washington's social circuit. He was proud of his early career as a bricklayer and kept his union membership. These characteristics inspired both trust and affection. Colleagues and friends characterized Fogarty in strikingly similar terms, praising his compassion, dedication, and straightforward nature. They also cited his shrewd, nimble intelligence, his tenacious, articulate advocacy, and his generous sharing of credit.

A grandson of Irish immigrants, Fogarty was proud of his Irish heritage. Early in his congressional career, he began wearing green bow ties, which became his signature. This was not merely a symbolic gesture: the occupation of Northern Ireland by Great Britain outraged Fogarty, and after the war, he proposed cutting off postwar aid to England until the partition of Ireland was ended. Beginning in 1949, he introduced a Resolution for the Unification of Ireland at the start of every Congress.

In 1943, Fogarty married Luise Martha Rohland, a school teacher; their daughter Mary was born in 1948. Mary Fogarty McAndrew is now the chair of the Fogarty Foundation, established by her father in 1964.

Fogarty received many awards and honors during his career. These included dozens of citations from citizens' groups and professional associations, ranging from the American Federation of Labor to the American Cancer Society. He was elected to honorary membership in the American Hospital Association, the Rhode Island Medical Society, and the American Library Association. He was also honored with the title of Commendatore al Merito della Repubblica Italiana by the Italian government in 1964. His nineteen honorary doctorates included degrees from Providence College, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, Brandeis University, Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame, Howard University, and Gallaudet College. He received a Lasker Award in 1959, the proceeds of which he donated to the Rhode Island Parents Council for Mentally Retarded Children. In 1964 he received the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation award, and used the proceeds to establish the John E. Fogarty Foundation for the Mentally Retarded. A number of Rhode Island facilities were named in his honor, including the John E. Fogarty Occupational Training Center for the Mentally Retarded, the John E. Fogarty Medical and Rehabilitation Unit at the Joseph H. Ladd School for the Mentally Retarded, the John E. Fogarty Health Science Building at the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy and Nursing, Fogarty Hall at the University of Rhode Island, Camp Fogarty in East Greenwich (originally a Seabee installation), the Fogarty Building in downtown Providence, and the John E. Fogarty School in Foster, Rhode Island. The John E. Fogarty International Center was established at the National Institutes of Health in 1968.

Fogarty died on January 10, 1967 of a massive heart attack, just hours before being sworn in for his fourteenth term in the House of Representatives. He was widely and sincerely mourned, and received many tributes from colleagues and friends. Dr. Howard Rusk, writing in the New York Times, stated: No one in the history of this country has done more to promote more and better health services, more and better health facilities, and more and better health research than Representative Fogarty." He added, ". . . he was a circuit rider for health, a teacher, a preacher, a fearless foe to any challenger who stood in the way of his crusade. He died on the field of battle. His friends, from the scientist to the sick, mourn his loss and call him blessed."

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