Josephine Briggs leading NIH alternative medicine program


Since 2008, Josephine Briggs has directed the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). (Photo: NCCAM)

When she accepted the position of director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institute of Health (NIH), a blogger called her a “greenhorn,” scolding the NIH for choosing a novice for a second time. Josephine Briggs, took the criticisms in stride, “I got aggravated a little bit,” she says, sinking back in a chair. Her friend and college roommate, Lois Schiffer said she has never seen her cry. “Josie is a very capable person with great commitment and resolve,” Schiffer wrote in an e-mail.

At sunrise,  Briggs, 64, starts her day with a morning run. Last September she crossed the finishing line in a race that covered 13.5 miles in 3 hours and 2 minutes. She does Yoga three times a week and is a finicky eater. “I like a little dark chocolate for some flavornoids,” she says. “I drink tea instead of diet beverages, I sort of believe in a simple fruit and vegetable diet.”

A petite woman with white blonde hair, Briggs was born in Toronto,  Canada. At age five, the family moved to the United States when her father,  a physicist, got a job with General Electric’s research laboratory in Schenectady, New York. At 11 years she became a U.S. citizen. She has two brothers — a labor lawyer who works in Des Moines and another who is a professor of psychology at the University of California in San Diego.

In high school Briggs was good at math, physics, and science. At Radcliffe College she became a math major but later dropped out after realizing she wasn’t “quite as good at math as the people at the very top,” she explains. She then did what many underclassman do — try out different majors. “I was a government major, then an American history major,” she says. Eventually Briggs enrolled in a biology class, a move that lead her to Harvard Medical School.

Over the years, Briggs has taught internal medicine and physiology at the University of Michigan; directed the Division of Kidney, Urologic, and Hematologic Diseases in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; and was senior scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She also ran a clinic that took care of patients with diabetic kidney disease and experimented with rats and mice on the factors that cause high blood pressure.

She moved into her current role at the NIH in January of 2008.

Briggs oversees research in manipulative therapy — an evolving field that includes Yoga, Tai chi, massage,  and acupuncture. Her opponents argue that a physician trained in kidney neurology has no business in alternative medicine — which they consider to be a “pseudoscience.\ She acknowledges this argument but is quick to add that her mandate is beyond approving the science behind alternative and comparative medicine. “We do not take on the task of adjudicating the evidence,” she said. “Here at the NIH our job is to sponsor high quality science to make sure the science is very well done but not to necessarily take on the final yes Tai chi no Tai chi.”

She understands the reluctance of the medical community. “Medicine is a conservative field,” she explains. But Briggs feels strongly that NCCAM is providing the public with what they want to know: “When I open the Science Times on Tuesday, I know there will be an article about the stuff we are supporting.”

Jurgen Schanermann, Briggs husband of 33 years, also works at the NIH and is an intramural investigator and head of a lab on kidney research.

The two met in June 1978 at the 7th International Congress of Nephrology in Montreal, Canada. “I was aware of her work as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physiology Department at Yale since it was in the general area of kidney research that I had worked in for a number of years,” he wrote in an e-mail. “She also had just published a major review article on this topic that sparked my interest in this obviously smart person. When I saw her name on the program as presenter of her data I attended the session, and this was my first encounter with Josie.”

He feels her work is making a difference: “Examining non-traditional ways of treatment and exploring new alternative directions for curing or alleviating disease has great relevance for clinical medicine,” he says.


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