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Herbert L. Ley Jr; Headed FDA in '60s

August 16, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Herbert L. Ley Jr., a ranking Food and Drug Administration official who served an embattled 18 months as commissioner in the late 1960s, died of cardiovascular disease July 22 at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 77.

Ley was chairman of the Microbiology Department at the Harvard School of Public Health before being selected in 1966 by FDA Commissioner James Goddard to become director of the FDA's Bureau of Medicine.

Two years later, he succeeded Goddard as commissioner and served until December 1969.

During Ley's tenure, the FDA was admonished by consumer advocates, congressional committees and its own parent agency, what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Department Secretary Robert Finch accused the FDA in that period of "waffling" on assessments of potentially hazardous substances.

One major event was the FDA's handling of tests on artificial sweeteners containing cyclamates, which an agency scientist said caused birth defects in chicken embryos. Rats given high doses also were found to develop bladder cancer.

Cyclamates had been used for years but came under renewed scrutiny after a few human deaths related to the food additive. Ley, who eventually removed cyclamates from the list of safe ingredients, was criticized for the delay.

That public setback was compounded by testimony in 1969 before a Senate select committee on nutrition in which Ley said that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was a safe flavor enhancer for processed baby food. Some studies showed MSG caused eye and brain damage in some animals.

Afterward, consumer advocate Ralph Nader said two of the four studies Ley cited did not exist and two others were preliminary. Ley said he made an "inexcusable" error, and leading manufacturers soon announced that they no longer would add MSG to baby food.

Ley left the FDA in December 1969, two months early. He denied being fired, telling reporters he preferred the phrase "eased out."

Ley was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Ashland, Ky. He attended Harvard University and was a 1946 cum laude graduate of its medical school. In 1951, he received a master's degree magna cum laude from the Harvard School of Public Health.

He served in the Army Medical Corps from 1947 to 1958, at first doing research in rickettsial disease in Mexico and Malaya. He tested clothing developed jointly by the Army and the Agriculture Department that repelled typhus-bearing jungle mites.

He also played a key role in studies showing that a new antibiotic, Chloromycetin, was effective in treating scrub typhus and typhoid fever.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, and a sister.

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