1958. A chemistry lab at Holy Cross. Freshman Anthony Fauci is conducting an experiment that requires what feels like hours of measuring, weighing and heating a solution over a Bunsen burner. The final step: Clamp the test tube and deliver the solution to the instructor.
“While Tony was transporting it, it started to slip out of the clip holder,” recalls classmate Dennis Card, M.D., ’62.
Fauci grabbed the test tube with his bare fingers, saving the experiment. When he set it down, classmates saw the consequence of this action. “It struck me how devoted Tony was to science,” Card says. “He grabbed that test tube and his fingerprints burned onto the glass. It showed me that the most important thing for him was getting the experiment right.”
“He wasn’t worried about the pain.”
More than 60 years later, COVID-19 has laid siege to the world, with cases over 72 million and casualties exceeding 1.6 million. And Anthony Fauci, M.D., ’62, Hon. ’87, the nation’s top allergy and infectious diseases expert, has witnessed a country at turns scared and angry. He’s heard crowds chant “Fire Fauci.” He’s received death threats. His wife and children have been harassed.
What pain 2020 may have inflicted on Fauci is not enough, however, to throw him off course: “I’m a physician. I’m a scientist. I’m a public health official. And my main goal is to preserve and protect the health and welfare of the American public,” he says, “and by extrapolation the health and safety and welfare of the rest of the world, because we’re a leader in these types of things.”
Card continues to be impressed by his classmate’s dedication to science all these decades later. “I think any of us who, had we the smarts and the determination to accomplish what Tony’s accomplished in public health, epidemiology and virology — and then gotten into the situation he was in last winter and spring — would say to ourselves, ‘Well, I’m 80 years old, I really don’t need to keep doing this,'” Card says.
“But Tony, well, I think he’s going to stick it out because if he doesn’t do it, there’s nobody else who can.”
This will be Fauci’s 37th year as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, serving his seventh United States president. In the long, strange trip that was 2020, Fauci became an inadvertent celebrity for his equanimous plainspokenness — delivered with that trademark Brooklyn accent — at White House press briefings. Holy Cross alumni say they recognize in Fauci echoes of their shared Jesuit education, coupled with an unwavering dedication to science and public service that has inoculated the doctor against criticism.
“One of the things I learned the first time I ever briefed a president, President Ronald Reagan, is that you have to make a decision when you’re speaking truth to power that you should not be concerned about wanting to be liked,” Fauci says. “Because once you start entering that into your equation, you might, subconsciously, slip into the situation where you tell somebody what you think they want to hear. And that is not truth.”
“So fundamental adherence to truthful principles — that you learn with a Jesuit education — really fortifies you. I made the decision 36 years ago when I had to tell Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush bad news about HIV that they didn’t want to hear. I gave them the cold truth, realizing that either they’re going to accept me, respect me and ask me back, or get annoyed that I’m bothering them with these inconvenient truths, as Al Gore used to say. And over the years, from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush, to Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush, to Barack Obama, and now to Donald Trump, I have maintained this consistency.”
“And you build a reputation.”
In consistently focusing on the hard work of helping people understand health crises, Fauci heeds the imperative implicit in the Jesuit tradition of men and women for others, says Rev. Gregory A. Kalscheur, S.J., dean of Boston College’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences and a member of Holy Cross’ board of trustees. “The Jesuit education that Dr. Fauci got, I’m sure, taught him how to think critically, to engage in questions of depth, to communicate effectively, and it also probably oriented him toward questions of purpose: ‘Why do I do this? What should I be doing?’ So it’s combining the intellectual rigor with a desire to serve for the greater good that exemplifies the Jesuit educational ideal.”
“It’s sharpness of mind in service to a greater end — service to the community — so that the community can flourish.”
Fauci, far left, is shown here with family in Bensonhurst.
1940-1950s. The Catholic Italian-American community of Bensonhurst, New York – home to Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” – was a place where you’d find front lawn shrines to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, and residents would close down city streets to march in processions on saints’ feast days. It was that kind of safe, close-knit community where pharmacist Stephen Fauci could employ his son to deliver prescription medication from the time the boy was old enough to ride a bike.
“I would take my Schwinn with this little basket and deliver prescriptions to Bensonhurst and the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, and you got to see people in the context of their diseases, and you realized that not everything was all well and good with everybody every single day,” Fauci recalls. “And I thought that was a good lesson that also got me interested in medicine.”
Fauci was an excellent student and gained admission to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan, an all-male Jesuit school. Robert Stanley, D.M.D., ’62 met Fauci when they were freshmen in high school. “We were both trying out for the basketball team, which he made, and I didn’t,” Stanley recalls. “He became captain of the team and was a great player.”
Fauci’s performance in the academic arena also impressed Stanley: “We took four years of Latin, three years of Greek and two years of French. And one thing about Tony was that he was one of the experts in Greek. When we were seniors, Tony and a group of students who were members of the Greek Academy would go to Yale and have discussions with the faculty on ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ — in Greek. That sort of explains the brilliance of his mind.”
The 1961-62 Holy Cross Biology Society executive board consisted of, from left: Edward Eldridge, M.D., ’62, president; Robert Stanley, D.M.D, ’62, secretary; Fauci, treasurer; and John Lent, M.D., ’62, vice president.
Later, at Holy Cross, the two men would enroll in the A.B. Greek premed program run by the formidable Rev. Joseph F. Busam, S.J., chairman of the premedical and predental programs.
“Fr. Busam basically told you whether you were going to go to medical school or not,” Card recalls. “And there were those of us to whom he said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Fr. Busam had, over the decades, established a very positive reputation with the medical school admissions committees. And he was definitely pretty good at picking out who would do well where.”
“And, so, he would say, ‘OK, well, these are your choices,’ and you could be pretty sure you would get in if you applied to one of the places that he thought you should apply to.”
Fauci smiles at the mention of his major and Fr. Busam.
“I still can’t explain to people today what A.B. comma Greek comma premed meant,” he says with a grin. But the program served all of Fauci’s intellectual interests. “We took just enough science to get into medical school. You know, we had Fr. Busam for biology, chemistry and physics, but we also took a lot of philosophy courses. And the humanities are such an important part of me as a physician-scientist and public health figure.”
“That was the reason I went into medicine because fundamentally as a person growing up being influenced greatly by the Jesuit tradition, I was more interested in the humanities and human nature than I was in human physiology, but at Regis I found I also really liked science — and I was good at it,” Fauci says. “So, I said to myself, what could it be to combine the humanities with science and medicine, and [the A.B. Greek premed program] was absolutely a natural marriage of the two because you really got a feel for the nature of evolving civilizations and how they related to each other and what mankind is and is not.”
“And that triggered my intense interest in global health,” he continues. “And with that comes an understanding of the disparities in the world, which I’m very sensitive to. That you still now, in 2020, have a couple of hundred thousand babies in Africa dying each year from malaria or tuberculosis or HIV, or the fact that there’s racial and ethnic health disparities …” He pauses. “All of these things are totally big flags on my radar screen that, if I wasn’t deeply entrenched in the humanities, I might be a little bit cold to and not fully appreciate how important it was to address those things.”
“I’m sure that people who did nothing but physics and chemistry do feel the same way I do. I don’t think I have a lock on that,” he continues. “But, for me, that my training in the humanities made me much more receptive to all of these things in society is integrally related to my role as a physician, a scientist and a public health official.”
Peter Deckers, M.D., ’62 says much of what the public admires in Fauci was apparent from youth: “He came from a family where the work ethic was over the top and the commitment to excellence was as strong as it could be. He brought those gifts to Holy Cross with him. Some of the students could get very tense and uptight when they came under the kind of pressure that existed at Holy Cross, but Tony thrived on it. And you’re witnessing that today when you watch him dealing with the government and the public.”
“He’s become known as America’s doctor because he’s handled himself with such eloquent elegance and equanimity,” Deckers adds. “He has an evenness of soul and spirit. He doesn’t argue from emotion. He argues from science.”
Fauci is one of the 40 most-cited living researchers in peer-reviewed journals in the history of medicine, and he also knows how to make his meaning clear to a broad spectrum of people, says classmate Jim Mulvihill, D.M.D., ’62. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, people you’ll ever hear explain science — whether to a senator or to the average layman — what’s going on with whatever, with HIV, with COVID, whatever.”
Fauci, Card, Stanley and Mulvihill waited tables together at Kimball Dining Hall, for which they were paid $2 a meal; they took pride in defraying the cost of tuition for their parents. Serving their classmates in this way offered a different education: You learned to be organized, efficient and quick. “There was a camaraderie there,” Card recalls. “Each of us had three tables we were responsible for and we would get these platters of meat, vegetables and potatoes on these large 3-foot oval, aluminum trays and put them up waiter-style on the flats of our hands and bring them to the assigned tables.”
Mornings were hectic, Mulvihill recalls: “I’d get there by quarter of seven in the morning and have 45 minutes before the thundering herd arrived. I’d set up my tables, grab a couple of those great pastries that came right out of the oven and also do a little bit of studying.”
For Fauci, his combined experience of delivering prescriptions, waiting tables and working construction summers during college offered insights into what mattered to regular folks: health, welfare and employment. “I really got a good taste of what the hardworking man or woman has to do, like the people who are outside my window right now, you know, doing landscaping or fixing potholes,” he says. “I’ve done that. I understand them.”
“And now that I’m in a somewhat privileged position, I have an intense empathy for people.”
On occasion, that empathy has prompted Fauci to refuse offers of career advancement from men unused to hearing “no” for an answer. Mulvihill recalls trying to call his friend one evening and getting a busy signal for hours. “When I got through, I asked Tony what was happening and he said, ‘It took me a long time to persuade President Bush that I shouldn’t lead the whole NIH.'”
“I believe Tony had opportunities to head the NIH from at least three presidents,” Mulvihill continues. “But Tony was doggedly after HIV at the time and he said, ‘I want to stay here and try to solve this problem.'”
Drs. Lee Hall and Fauci examine a participant in an early AIDS study.
1981. Young, otherwise healthy gay men are getting sick and dying of an unnamed disease and the government and medical profession are slow to act. AIDS activist Larry Kramer forms the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and trains his frustration on Fauci, publishing in 1988 an open letter in the San Francisco Examiner in which he calls Fauci a killer and “an incompetent idiot.” When Kramer died last May, he counted Fauci among his good friends.
“The friendship was a gradual process because Larry was very reluctant to admit that we were really on the same page. He fought that,” Fauci says with a smile. “It pained him to become my friend. It pained him finally to say that he loved me when, in fact, it was so much easier for him to see me as the devil incarnate.”
Fauci, though, understood that Kramer’s anger was at an institution, not a person: “He was calling the government a murderer and an incompetent idiot, and I was the face of the government at the time.”
“Most every scientist and every regulator was completely intimidated and put aback by the activists’ iconoclastic behavior, so that’s when I said, you know, let me listen to what they’re saying,” he continues. “And once I started to listen, it became clear that they were making perfect sense. And once I let them into the inner circle of discussing where we were going with clinical trials, Larry noticed that. And that’s when, all of a sudden, I went from being the devil to his hero.”
Journalist Andrew Miller was one of the ACT UP activists who, on May 21, 1990, occupied the National Institutes of Health (NIH), staging a “die-in” to protest the U.S. government’s inaction on the AIDS crisis — particularly its lack of funding for and urgency surrounding research into treatments and cures. Like Fauci, Miller regards the event as a critical moment in AIDS activism, a turning of the tide.
“If you think about it, he’s this Italian Catholic from Brooklyn who grew up at a time and in an environment hostile to gay people,” Miller says. “I think it’s to his credit that he was persuadable, especially because we were so mean to him — much as we were to most local, state and federal health department officials. But unlike many others, Fauci listened to us and responded constructively.”
“Given his experience and his level-headed approach to combating the current COVID-19 pandemic, I really hope he stays at the NIH for the foreseeable future.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush enlisted Fauci in the creation of The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an international initiative credited with preventing millions of HIV infections, which has invested more than $85 billion in a global battle with HIV/AIDS. “And because of the drugs that we developed in my institute, HIV has gone from being a complete death sentence to people living essentially normal lives with one pill a day,” Fauci says.
Fauci is embraced by Bono: rockstar, social justice activist and Fauci family dinner guest.
His commitment to HIV research and PEPFAR brought his work to the attention of a certain international activist. Like Fauci, he’s a rockstar in his field.
“Bono wanted to talk to me at the time I was putting PEPFAR together. He flew in on his private jet and wanted to find a place to meet,” Fauci recalls with an ear-to-ear grin. “I said, ‘Just come to the house and knock on the door.’ And I just was in a mischievous moment. I said to my oldest daughter, who was about 13 and a great fan of Bono, ‘A couple of people from my office are going to come over to the house this evening for dinner. I’m going to be in my office when the doorbell rings, so just let them in.'”
“So the doorbell rings and the door opens and I hear this scream and, ‘Daddy, Bono’s at the door!’ It was phenomenal. She just couldn’t believe it. And to Bono’s great credit — he’s such an amazing guy — he spent the first half hour of the visit playing around with my kids, taking pictures and talking to them about things. This is the rock star of the century spending time with my children.”
“I put together a pasta dinner, and then we went deep into the night talking about HIV.”
Decades later, the two remain good friends. When Fauci was named 2020 Federal Employee of the Year last October, Bono capped a parade of Hollywood A-listers and well-wishers — Sharon Stone, Matthew McConaughey, Eugene Levy and Bryan Cranston among them — in a virtual tribute that felt more like the Oscars’ Lifetime Achievement Award presentation than a celebration of civil servants.
“Anthony Fauci’s work has saved, literally, millions of lives,” Bono said in his address. “Tony, we love you; we honor you; we thank God for you.”
TIME magazine cover, October/November 2020.
2020. Anthony Fauci’s nightmare is reality: The world is in the grip of a pandemic. He predicted it five years earlier in a “60 Minutes” interview. Asked what kept him up at night, Fauci replied, “An influenza-like respiratory-borne virus that’s easily transmittable to which the population of the world has very little if any immunity against and that has a high degree of morbidity and mortality.”
At the time of this article’s writing, the United States is reporting 16 million cases of COVID-19 and mourning nearly 300,000 dead Americans. Fauci’s pleas to the American public to wear masks, maintain 6 feet of physical distance, avoid crowds, opt for outdoor activities and wash hands frequently have come to be seen by some as an infringement of civil liberties. Some fear Fauci will tank the economy with a call for a national lockdown, despite his protests otherwise. Some in the media have taken aim, labeling him “the medical deep state” and calling for his head. Fauci now has a security detail.
Alongside the haters, there is an army of supporters that includes former U.S. presidents, celebrities, politicians and everyday people who treat Fauci as a folk hero and a commodity. A Rochester, New York, baker pays tribute selling glazed donuts bearing Fauci’s image wreathed in white icing and dusted with red, white and blue sprinkles. A Long Island clam bar shows its love by advertising Fauci Linguini. There are Fauci T-shirts, socks, bobbleheads, throw pillows, Christmas ornaments, bumper stickers, votive candles, magnets and mugs. The Topps baseball card bearing Fauci’s image, throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ season opener last summer, has become the company’s best-selling card of all time. Comedian Randy Rainbow’s Broadway sendup “Gee, Anthony Fauci” has 2.2 million views on Twitter. Fauci’s favorite actor, Brad Pitt, was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of the doctor in the cold open of “Saturday Night Live’s” April 25 episode, and Julia Roberts dubbed him “the coolest man on the planet” in a Zoom interview that had her in the role of starstruck fan.
On social media, Fauci fans seeking kindred spirits can join Dr. Fauci Speaks, We Listen (19,000 members), Supporting Dr. Fauci (10,731 fans) or Instagram’s Dr. Anthony Fauci (59,900 followers), among other channels.
Good, bad or ugly, these are distractions Fauci says he must resist.
“COVID-19 emerged right in the middle of one of the most divisive times in society — political, cultural and ideological divisiveness — to the point where even a public health measure that would and should be universally and uniformly embraced by people as the way to help you get out of a difficult situation is polarizing,” he says.
“And then the unthinkable happens that somebody like myself who does nothing but preach public health messages gets physically threatened to the point where I have to have federal agents following me around all the time, including the one that’s right outside my door right now. You know, to think that, because you’re saying we’ve got to wear masks, avoid crowds, stay distant, do things outdoors more than indoors, wash your hands frequently there are people threatening my life? I mean, is this really happening? It is.”
So, how does he deal with it?
“Well, I manage it by staying laser-focused on who I am and what my goal and mandate and passion is,” Fauci says.
“I don’t want to put down the well-meaning people who have used me as a symbol, because I believe that society is thirsting for clarity, truth and honesty in an arena of confusion, mixed messages and outright untruths,” he continues. “So I’ve become a symbol, but if I start to focus on things like, wow, someone made a bobblehead of me, that’s a moment of distraction away from what my job is.”
“I think Tony believes he has an obligation to humankind,” Deckers says. “And it isn’t over yet. The work that he did with AIDS and with the Ebola virus and now with COVID-19, honestly, Tony Fauci should win the Nobel Prize. He has had massive impact worldwide.”
Three-year-old John, son of Elizabeth Gallagher Ward ’03, in his “Dr. Fauci” Halloween costume.
1988. When asked about personal heroes at the October presidential debate with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, then Vice President George H.W. Bush said: “I think of Dr. Fauci. You’ve probably never heard of him. He’s a very fine researcher — a top doctor at the National Institutes of Health — working hard, doing something about research on this disease of AIDS.”
Basketball legend Bob Cousy ’50 is another fan. He has called the doctor his hero more than once in recent interviews with Boston media. The two have socialized on occasion and — with the late James Burke ’47, former chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson — share the distinction of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fauci has called Cousy, 92, his “absolute hero” but Cousy insists he said it first. “Mine is legitimate,” Cousy says. “I have been saying that, but I think Tony just felt an obligation.”
But Fauci’s doubling down: “I think what people don’t appreciate is what an outstanding human being Bob Cousy is. They see him for what he was, and he is one of the greatest basketball players in the history of basketball, to be sure. But what they don’t understand is how ahead of his time he was, particularly when it came to his extraordinary sensitivity to racism. That’s why he’s my hero. I always idolized his basketball capabilities, but when I found out what an amazing human being he was, then that was a different story. Then it was doubly hero.”
Neither man is likely to dodge the hero worship anytime soon. There’s been a significant uptick in the number of young people pursuing careers in medicine. Medical school applications are up 18% over 2019 — a development NPR, The Hill and Forbes are calling “The Fauci Effect.” Fauci’s fan base is even growing with the preschool set. The four Ward boys of Needham, Massachusetts, all wanted to be Anthony Fauci this past Halloween, but the youngest, 3-year-old John, won. Everyone else was too big for the lab coat. John’s mother, Elizabeth Gallagher Ward ’03, went all out, dyeing his hair grey and assembling the trademark look: rimless eyeglasses, tie, monogrammed lab coat, stethoscope and mask (with Holy Cross logo, of course). John continues to wear the stethoscope to his preschool and regularly refers to himself in the third person as Dr. Fauci.
Up past his bedtime on a November evening, John declines to be interviewed over Zoom, but his big brother Leo, 9, de facto family spokesperson, encapsulates what Fauci means to the family: “He is a doctor that used to go to the college or high school at Holy Cross, and he is now a doctor fighting against COVID-19 and he is doing his job very well. And he is working really hard to stop the coronavirus and win the war so that we can go back to a normal life, and if you go to the toy store you don’t have to wear a mask anymore. And he’s testing, testing, testing for literally almost about a year, but mostly for six months, and that’s all the information I have about the scientist named Anthony Fauci.”
Elizabeth adds, “He is a source of strength, character and authority that we can look to in a time of chaos. I feel empowered by him. He’s given us the tools to help each other. It’s up to us.”
Amy McDermott Ferrone ’89, who shared a snapshot of herself and three classmates in T-shirts emblazoned “#TeamFauci,” echoes Ward, saying he is an object lesson in a life well lived: “We are craving a voice of reason, and Dr. Fauci is that voice. He lives to serve others and we should all strive for that.”
Ask classmate Bob Ryan ’62 about Fauci and he reaches for the Bible and recites 1 Kings 19, 11-12:
“The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.”
“Anthony Fauci is not about fanfare or self-aggrandizement,” Ryan says. “Tony’s like that whisper.”
Fauci during a webinar with Holy Cross students on Oct. 6, 2020.
On Oct. 6, 2020, Fauci took questions via Zoom from Holy Cross students about the pandemic and closed with a caution: “One of the things we have to be careful about is despair. You know, we went through a terrible late winter, early spring. There was hope that when the summer came, it would get better. In fact, it got worse, and now we’re entering into another darker period.
“You know, I know what it feels like getting up in the morning from Wheeler, going down the stairs, you know, when everything is dark and really cold. So, you superimpose upon that the situation that we’re living in, a really difficult situation. Don’t give up hope. It’s going to end. We’re going to get a vaccine.”
Six weeks later, two vaccines, each with nearly a 95% efficacy rate, are in production. On Nov. 19, Fauci proclaimed to the White House Press Corps, “Help is on the way” and added what has become a refrain:
“We need to actually double down on the public health measures as we’re waiting for that help to come, which will be soon. We’re not talking about shutting down the country. We’re not talking about locking down,” Fauci said. “We’re talking about intensifying the simple public health measures that we all talk about. If we do that, we’ll be able to hold things off until the vaccine comes. Now, I’ve used that metaphor that, ‘The cavalry is on the way.’ If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting; you keep going until the cavalry gets here.”
Fauci closed his remarks by saying he anticipates a not-so-distant future when he’ll take to the podium and say, “Get vaccinated.”
Fauci with his wife, Christine Grady, who is chief of the Department of Bioethics at the NIH Clinical Center. The couple has three daughters.
December 2020. President-elect Joe Biden has asked the nation’s top infectious diseases expert to also be his chief medical adviser on COVID-19, and Fauci has accepted.
Anthony Fauci turned 80 on Christmas Eve. Ordinarily, asking a man of 80 “What’s next?” is a softball question. Posing it to a man still working 20-hour days seems oddly rude. But you have to ask.
“Well, you know, I’ve spent most of my professional career devoted to HIV/AIDS. I think the legacy of PEPFAR, which I was an architect of, is something that I will always be proud of,” he says. “The development of drugs that are life-saving now for millions of people with HIV, most of which emanated out of my institute, is another thing that I’m proud of. But there are a lot of challenges ahead, you know. We want to get an HIV vaccine.”
“And we’re definitely going to put an end to this COVID pandemic,” he continues. “So that’s something that I’m looking forward to. And I would like to continue to address things like malaria, tuberculosis, neglected tropical diseases and other surprise outbreaks that come along for as long as I am at the top of my game.”
“And, right now, I am at the top of my game.”
Written by MaryBeth Reilly-McGreen ’89 for the Winter 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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