Tony Fauci beams like a schoolboy who has just earned straight As as he holds up the medal draped around his neck, professing that it is an “extraordinary and humbling honor” to receive the Smithsonian Institution’s Great Americans award.
The Smithsonian, Fauci says, in a ceremony and interview held virtually, is “one of the great American institutions,” one that he has held in high esteem for “all of my adult life.”
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the nation’s touchstone advisor on the novel coronavirus pandemic, is a pretty great American institution himself, says Anthea Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which sponsors the award.
Fauci was selected “for his enduring commitment to public service, his tireless and extraordinary leadership during the evolving Covid-19 pandemic, for a lifetime devotion to treatment and eradication of infectious diseases from HIV/AIDS to Zika, for his unwavering belief in the power of science and using that power to save millions of lives,” says Hartig. “And for working for the American people with integrity, passion, dedication and humanitarianism for more than five decades.”
Fauci, 80, “defines service at the highest level and exemplifies the true meaning of a great American,” Hartig said during last night’s virtual ceremony.
The infectious diseases physician and researcher is the seventh individual to receive the Great Americans Medal, which was first given in 2016. Previous recipients have included Madeleine K. Albright, Colin L. Powell, Tom Brokaw, Cal Ripken Jr., Billie Jean King and Paul Simon. The medal—a gold piece inspired by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1903 Double Eagle $20 coin—is awarded for “lifetime contributions embodying American ideas and ideals, and honors individuals who have not only made a lasting impact in their fields, but whose philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors set them apart.”
Fauci in turn gave the Smithsonian one of his prized possessions: a 3D-printed plastic model of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It has been wielded by the scientist during the hundreds of briefings, interviews and talks he’s given since early 2020 and will join other Fauci-related materials that will be part of a future Covid-19-related exhibition.
Currently President Joseph R. Biden’s chief medical adviser, Fauci has served six previous presidents. His accomplishments since he began his career at the National Institutes of Health in 1968 are mind-boggling. As an infectious disease specialist who was fascinated by the human body’s response to attack, Fauci developed effective therapies for formerly fatal inflammatory and immune-mediated diseases such as Polyarteritis Nodosa and Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly Wegener's granulomatosis).
When a mysterious illness began killing primarily gay men in the 1980s, Fauci jumped in with both feet. But he was vilified by activists who said the government was not moving quickly enough to address the disease because it was seen as a homosexual plague. Many years later, AIDS activist Peter Staley said that Fauci will now “be remembered as one of the heroes.”
Fauci’s work on elucidating HIV’s means of infection led to a deeper understanding of the virus and the development of drug treatments. He was enlisted by President George W. Bush to create a program that would bring life-saving medications to the developing world, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Fauci told Smithsonian regent David M. Rubinstein—who conducted the virtual interview—that PEFPAR has saved 14 to 18 million lives, and that he gives most of the credit to Bush.
Google Scholar says that Fauci is the 32nd most-cited living researcher and he is 9th among 2.5 million authors in the field of immunology by total citation count from 1980 to 2021.
It is perhaps not surprising that Fauci became a doctor. His father was a community pharmacist in Brooklyn and Fauci delivered prescriptions. He loved sports—excelling at basketball in high school—but did not consider a college or NBA basketball career.
“Among things I inherited from my father was speed, which made me a good basketball player because of the game we played back then,” he says. But he also inherited his height. “I found out very early on that as fast and as good a shooter you may be, I’m five-seven, and a five-seven point guard will always get completely crushed by a six-five point guard,” Fauci says. “It was that ‘aha’ moment that I said I better go into medicine.”
He chose infectious diseases in part because, “I like serious situations and infectious diseases can kill you pretty quickly,” he says. But there was also hope—the possibility of preventing and treating the diseases. Fauci has been on the case whenever the world has been presented with a new infectious disease threat, most recently, Ebola, Zika and now Covid-19.
Rubinstein wanted to know if it had been difficult for Fauci to challenge President Donald J. Trump’s many erroneous statements about Covid. “It certainly wasn’t easy, but I had to do it,” says Fauci. “I had to do it for my own integrity,” he says, adding that he had to act when he had the opportunity to say “no, that’s not correct at all.” But says, Fauci, “I don’t take any pleasure at all in contradicting the President of the United States.” He acknowledges that his actions rankled some in the administration, but says others were happy to work with him.
Despite a lot of talk—even from Trump—that Fauci would be fired, Fauci says it did not perturb him. “If it did happen, so be it, you know, I wasn’t going to change my approach towards acting only on evidence and only on solid science,” he says. And if he was fired, he says, it would probably cause “more problems for the administration than for me.”
Rubinstein asked how Americans could approach the next pandemic differently. “When you have a common enemy like a virus that is emerging and beginning to devastate your country, you cannot have divisiveness,” says Fauci. “You cannot have a situation where you politicize public health, where people will or will not wear a mask as a public statement, where people will deny the reality of a devastating disease when it’s looking them square in the face,” he says.
People need to pull together, which has not happened, says Fauci. “For the next time we’ve got to make sure when we have a common enemy, let’s fight them in a common way.”
Fauci says he has not taken a day off since February 2020 and does not anticipate any vacations in the near future, despite having been fully vaccinated. “There’s just too much to do, the stakes are too high,” he says, noting that knowing that so many peoples’ lives are at stake “energizes you.”
He has become a celebrity, which he says he finds a tad embarrassing—such as when patients, doctors, and nurses ask for autographs and selfies when he’s making rounds at the NIH Clinical Center, or when neighbors stop him when he’s on evening power walks with his wife.
Rubinstein says he asked Fauci a decade ago if he was thinking he might retire or cash in on his knowledge by joining the private sector. “You said ‘no you didn’t care about making money,’” says Rubinstein. “You’re still uninterested in pursuing, you know, a more lucrative career, is that correct?”
“That is correct, David, that is correct,” says Fauci. “Sorry to disappoint you.”