FDA Nominees Have Psychiatrists as Parents

May 4, 2009

President Obama’s 2 nominees for the top positions at the FDA have 3 psychiatrists as parents between them. Both Margaret Hamburg, nominated as commissioner of the FDA, and Joshua Sharfstein, nominated as deputy commissioner, are medical doctors and have held top public health positions: Hamburg in New York and Sharfstein in Baltimore. Both of Hamburg’s parents are psychiatrists, according to Neal L. Cohen, MD, director of the Center for Public Mental Health at Hunter College in New York, who knows Hamburg from her days in the early 1990s when she served for 6 years as commissioner of health for the City of New York.

President Obama's 2 nominees for the top positions at the FDA have 3 psychiatrists as parents between them. Both Margaret Hamburg, nominated as commissioner of the FDA, and Joshua Sharfstein, nominated as deputy commissioner, are medical doctors and have held top public health positions: Hamburg in New York and Sharfstein in Baltimore. Both of Hamburg's parents are psychiatrists, according to Neal L. Cohen, MD, director of the Center for Public Mental Health at Hunter College in New York, who knows Hamburg from her days in the early 1990s when she served for 6 years as commissioner of health for the City of New York.

Sharfstein is the former commissioner of health in Baltimore. His father, Steven, is a former secretary, vice president, and deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association.

During the past 5 years, the FDA has been embroiled in a number of issues involving the safety of psychiatric drugs, such as SSRIs. Lately, questions have been raised by prominent lawmakers about psychiatrists who participate in clinical trials while simultaneously receiving payments for consulting from the company whose drug is being tested.

Despite their genealogy, neither Hamburg nor Sharfstein has had a high profile on psychiatric issues. Hamburg has most recently served as vice president for the Nuclear Threat Initiative's biological program. "I do not have any insight as to her positions on psychiatry-related issues that would be brought before FDA," said Cohen about Hamburg. "Of course, she is a consummate public health professional and with 2 academic psychiatrists as parents, she is undoubtedly familiar with the challenges that are faced by the psychiatric community."

Dinah Miller, MD, president-elect of the Maryland Psychiatric Society, said she did not know the younger Sharfstein. "But my take is that people like him," she said.

Sharfstein was in the running for the top job but was apparently nixed because of opposition from the brand-name pharmaceutical industry, which considers him somewhat of an antagonist. Sharfstein worked in the past for Rep Henry Waxman (D-Calif), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over the FDA. Waxman has proposed restrictive legislation in areas such as drug marketing. Sharfstein worked with the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which Waxman previously chaired.