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Charles Edwards; directed FDA, regulated the pill; at 87

Dr. Edwards led the FDA three years before he was promoted by the Nixon administration to be, in effect, its medical czar. Dr. Edwards led the FDA three years before he was promoted by the Nixon administration to be, in effect, its medical czar. (Associated Press/File 1970)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / August 31, 2011

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NEW YORK - By the early 1970s, public alarm over health threats had prompted Congress to pass a barrage of laws requiring the government to ride closer herd on the multibillion-dollar food and drug industries. Dr. Charles C. Edwards, as head of the Food and Drug Administration, led the regulatory charge.

New legislation required the FDA to determine for the first time not only if drugs were safe, but also if they worked. Dr. Edwards, who had been appointed commissioner by President Nixon in 1969, ordered the review of hundreds of thousands of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. A particularly visible action concerned birth control pills, which were revolutionizing sexual behavior but seemed to be causing worrisome side effects.

He ordered that a message be inserted in each package discussing the pills’ benefits and hazards, including the possibility of blood clots and breast cancer. It was the boldest step taken under a 1966 law requiring accurate labeling.

Planned Parenthood objected to the warnings because it believed that the pills’ benefits far outweighed what it said were unproven dangers. At the same time, doctors complained that the action encroached on their role of instructing and guiding patients. Later, Dr. Edwards ordered that two brands of birth control pills be removed from the market as unsafe.

“It is the only prudent course,’’ he said.

Dr. Edwards died on Aug. 7 in San Diego after a long illness, his family said. He was 87.

After focusing on the pill, Dr. Edwards acted more forcefully than any previous commissioner by removing a host of products from the shelves, at least temporarily. These included highly publicized cases: vichyssoise suspected of carrying botulism, and mercury-tainted swordfish and tuna.

Dr. Edwards also oversaw the introduction of nutrition labels on foods, a consumer-protection campaign that was originally voluntary, though many food processors followed the guidelines. After 1990, expanded nutritional information on labels was required.

Dr. Edwards’s flurry of activity followed a period of disarray at the agency, which had three commissioners in the three years before he arrived. He successfully lobbied to double the budget and reorganized the FDA’s management structure.

He also struggled to maintain a regulatory balance between protecting consumers’ health and guarding against hurting the economic health of industry, a juggling act prescribed by law. He worried that “we can with a stroke of a pen wipe out an industry.’’ Despite his efforts, consumer advocates said that he could have been tougher in enforcing the new laws in the public’s interest.

After three years of leading the FDA, Dr. Edwards was promoted in March 1973 to assistant secretary of health in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, making him, in effect, the medical czar of the Nixon administration. He supervised the Public Health Service, the surgeon general, the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA.

At the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he gave greater independence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and folded the semiautonomous National Institute of Mental Health into the National Institutes of Health. In 1975, however, having stayed on to serve under President Ford after Nixon’s resignation, Dr. Edwards quit in protest over budget cuts to health programs that would especially hurt the poor and unemployed. He said the Ford administration’s plans to shift costs to the states were particularly damaging.

Charles Cornell Edwards was born in Overton, Neb., and grew up in Kearney, Neb., where his father was a country doctor. He attended Princeton before transferring to the University of Colorado, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After a medical internship in Minneapolis, he worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

He was later a Marine medical officer in Korea and earned a master’s degree in surgery from the University of Minnesota before taking up a general surgical practice in Des Moines. In the 1960s he was a manager for the American Medical Association and a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm. He also taught at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

After leaving government in 1975, Dr. Edwards worked for private companies, including Becton, Dickinson & Co., a New Jersey medical device maker. Two years later he moved to the La Jolla area of San Diego to become president and chief executive of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, a predecessor of the Scripps Research Institute, a leader in biomedical research.

He ultimately led the Scripps Institutions of Medicine and Science, building it into a regional health care concern with 1,600 physicians and 6,200 employees.

After retiring from Scripps in 1993, he was president and chief executive of the California Healthcare Institute, a research and advocacy organization for California’s biomedical industry, until 1995.

Dr. Edwards leaves his wife of 66 years, the former Sue Cowles Kruidenier; three sons, Timothy, Charles Jr., and David; a daughter, Nancy Edwards Schned; and eight grandchildren.