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May 20, 2020

Fact Sheet – Francis S. Collins

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April 14, 1950:  Born in Staunton, Virginia, the youngest of four sons, to Fletcher Collins and Margaret James Collins, community arts leaders with an ardent love of theater and music.  After meeting in graduate school at Yale in 1931, the couple moved to Arthurdale, West Virginia, working with Eleanor Roosevelt to establish an experimental community that aimed to offer an alternative to the poverty of mining towns mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Bureaucratic infighting, however, soon robbed the town of federal funding and the community died, an experience that left them forever suspicious of government.

They relocated to the Piedmont region of North Carolina and began academic careers at Elon College (now University). While there, Fletcher Collins chronicled the area’s folksongs, using a portable tape recorder to compile a collection that would, along with that of Alan Lomax, become a significant part of the American folksongs collection at the Library of Congress.

The advent of World War II redirected their energies to national defense, and Fletcher became an aircraft factory supervisor on Long Island.  At the war’s end, the couple again relocated, this time to pursue a simple agrarian life on a 90-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, without machinery or running water, but rich in nature’s limitless wonders. To make ends meet as the family grew, his father taught at Mary Baldwin College and, with his wife, founded a community playhouse, The Oak Grove Theater, which continues to operate. Meanwhile, his mother homeschools Francis and his brothers.

1955:    To help advance his music education, his adamantly secular parents enroll him in the local Episcopal boys’ choir, while also advising him to be wary of any attempt at proselytization. He heeds the advice.

1960:    Enters his first public school, as a sixth grader, when his family leaves the farm and moves to Staunton to care for his ailing grandmother.

1964:    A 10th grade chemistry teacher opens his mind to the order of the universe as laid out in the mathematical preciseness of atoms and molecules, as compared to what he considers the lack of clarity (“the messiness”) of biology. He decides to become a chemist.

1966:    Graduates high school at age 16 and enters the University of Virginia. While there, his “rather superficial” personal exploration of various religions leads him to find comfort in the noncommittal nature of agnosticism.

1970:    Graduates University of Virginia with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry.  Enters the Ph.D. program in physical chemistry at Yale University.

1970-1973: While at Yale, he moves beyond the comfortable ambiguity of agnosticism to unapologetic atheism, equating belief in God with intellectual suicide. Meanwhile, his dissertation research leads him to question a career based solely on quantum physics, fearing that the major advances in the field had been completed 50 years ago.  In search of a change of pace, he enrolls in a biochemistry course, which opens his mind to a realm bursting with revolutionary possibilities, particularly the emerging focus on DNA, RNA, and the other biological building blocks that hold the blueprint of life, only then just being explored.

1973:    While still completing his dissertation, he is accepted to the medical school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

1974:    Earns Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale.

1976:    As a third-year medical student, he finds himself deeply touched by how often his patients look to personal faith to provide solace in the face of adversity, even death. When one of those patients asks him about his own faith, his inability to articulate an answer that feels honest, despite his ostensible atheism, leads him to seriously consider the possibility of God for the first time in his life. His soul searching leads him to visit a neighbor, a Methodist minister, who loans him the book Mere Christianity by legendary Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis, a once-confirmed atheist who rigorously tested the tenets of Christianity through the lens of logic and became a Christian himself. Collins’s journey to Christian belief will evolve and strengthen over the next three decades.

1977:    Earns an M.D. at the University of North Carolina.

1978-1981:  Serves residency and chief residency in internal medicine at North Carolina Memorial Hospital, Chapel Hill.

1981:    Returns to Yale as a Fellow in Human Genetics at Yale Medical School, under the direction of the man he once described as “the smartest guy” he ever met, the school’s Sterling Professor of Genetics, Sherman Weissman, who continues in that position.  In Weissman’s lab, he works on hemoglobin disorders and also develops “chromosome jumping,” a faster method of cloning DNA fragments than the earlier, slower method of “chromosome walking.” The technique allows cloning of an entire genetic strand by skipping over lengthy, perhaps unsearchable, parts of the strand without going through the sequence gene by gene in order to read the entire strand.

1984:    With Weissman, publishes a paper, “Directional cloning of DNA fragments at a large distance from an initial probe: a circularization method,” which describes the technique of chromosome jumping.

            Joins the University of Michigan as Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics.  In 1991, becomes professor of internal medicine and human genetics and is named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Dubbed the “gene hunter,” he refines remarkable advances at Michigan that include “positional cloning,” a method to locate disease-triggering genes without first knowing which genes they may be or their location in a chromosome’s strand.

1987:    Meets with Lap-Chee Tsui, a geneticist at Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, who had recently identified the region (locus) of the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. Because of the time-consuming method of going through genetic strands gene-by-gene, they agree to join their labs to speed the hunt.

1989:    Collins’s team at Michigan, in collaboration with Lap-Chee Tsui and his team, pinpoints and identifies the precise gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. The journal Science publishes the results that September.

More discoveries soon follow as he and various collaborators isolate the genes responsible for neurofibromatosis (1990), Huntington’s disease (1993), M4 type of adult acute leukemia (1993), and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (1997).

1990:    Principles of Medical Genetics, with Thomas D. Gelehrter and David Ginsburg, published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2nd edition, 1998).

1991:    Elected to the Institute of Medicine.

1993:    Appointed director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR) in Bethesda, Maryland, one of 25 and now 27 centers and institutes under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the

medical research agency of the United States and the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. He succeeds Nobel Laureate James D. Watson, who, with Francis Crick in 1953, proposed the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

As NCHGR director, he assumes leadership of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, responsible for the Human Genome Project, which aimed to sequence all three billion DNA letters of the human genetic instruction book. The project, which eventually became an international consortium, would become and remains the largest biological collaboration project in history. 

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

1994:    Founds the NCHGR’s Division of Intramural Research in partnership with other laboratories conducting genome research at the National Institutes of Health, which becomes the foremost group of research centers in human genetics.

1997:    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services elevates the NCHGR to an NIH institute, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

1998:    The journal Science publishes his and colleagues’ groundbreaking study on genetic variants associated with type 2 diabetes, finding at least ten genetic variants associated with increased susceptibility to adult-onset diabetes.

Marries Diane Baker, a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling, and founding faculty member and director of the genetic counseling program at the University of Michigan. They have two children from Collins’s previous marriage:  Margaret (b. 1970) and Elizabeth (b. 1974).

Forms a rock band, “The Directors,” with other NIH scientists. The band, with revolving personnel, continues to play at NIH and other events and is currently called “The Affordable Rock and Roll Act.”

2000:    With biologist J. Craig Venter, finishes a draft of the human genome. In a joint press conference, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announce the milestone.

2001:    Under his direction, NHGRI launches the International HapMap Project, a public-private effort to “map” common haplotypes, variant forms of any given gene that trigger, often depending on a person’s environment, an enormous range of diseases, ranging from cancer to diabetes to asthma to depression.  As an international consortium, the results of the effort are freely available for research worldwide.

Receives, with J. Craig Venter, the Biotechnology Heritage Award from the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

2003:    Under his direction, the Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announces what is essentially the completion of the Human Genome Project, fully mapping the entire human genome, along with the sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up human DNA. The project is completed two-and-a-half years ahead of schedule and $400 million under budget.  It coincides with the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s publication of the structure of DNA.

An NIH team he leads identifies the genetic basis of Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare debilitating disease that causes rapid aging and always leads to early death. Besides the possibility to combat the syndrome, the discovery also opens the door to better understanding all human aging processes.

2005:    Receives the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics.

2006:    The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief published by the Free Press. In this landmark book, Collins recounts his own journey from agnosticism to atheism to Christian belief, explains why science is not in conflict with the Bible, and outlines how modern science and robust personal faith can intersect. The New York Times Book Review noted, “Collins’s argument that science and faith are compatible deserves a wide hearing. It lets non-churchgoers consider spiritual questions without feeling awkward.” He describes his support for “evolutionary creation,” drawing the ire of conservative Christians.  It becomes an instant New York Times bestseller, resides on the bestseller list for 16 weeks, and is translated into 24 languages. 

Francis Collins: “I was astounded by the level of interest and response, as I thought I was mostly writing to help clarify my own thinking, and the book might be of interest to a few people.”

2007:    In response to the overwhelming interest in his 2006 book, The Language of God, and seeing the need to create a platform for further dialogue about science and religion, he and his wife found the non-profit BioLogos, to foster discussion about harmony between science and biblical faith.  The organization publishes articles, testimonies, and podcasts from renowned scientists who are also Christians, and promotes the view that an evolutionary creation position is fully correct and compatible with Christianity. He serves as its president until 2009.

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President George W. Bush.

2008:    Increasingly concerned with the ethical and legal issues raised by rapid advancements in genetic research, spearheads efforts to protect the privacy of genetic information and prohibit gene-based insurance and employment discrimination, leading to the passage of the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act.

Resigns his position as NHGRI director, but continues to lead an active laboratory there focused on Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Case Western Reserve University awards him the Inamori Ethics Prize.

2009:    Newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama nominates him as the 16th director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  He receives unanimous Senate confirmation. 

President Obama awards him the National Medal of Science.

Pope Benedict XVI appoints him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

2010:    The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine published by Harper Collins. A description of the medical, scientific, and genetic bases underpinning the revolution of “personalized medicine.”

            Francis Collins:  “This book was written during my ‘year off’ from NIH, seeking to share the promise of the coming era of medical advances driven by understanding of the human genome. That revolution is still underway.”

Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith published by HarperOne.  A collection of writings on the rationality of faith from philosophers, preachers, poets, and scientists including Augustine, C.S. Lewis, John Locke, and Dorothy Sayers.

            Francis Collins:  “I was challenged to put this anthology together and found it a great opportunity to expand my own knowledge of the writings of some of the great thinkers, from Plato to Plantinga.”

Establishes the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, aimed at delivering new disease treatments and cures to patients faster. Widens and directs Alzheimer’s research.  Launches and directs a focus on “precision medicine,” in which researchers, providers, and patients tailor treatment programs specific to each patient.

Inspired by his work volunteering as a doctor at a missionary hospital in Nigeria in 1989, helps to establish the “Human Heredity and Health in Africa” (H3Africa) initiative, to facilitate fundamental research into diseases on the continent by developing infrastructure, resources, training, and ethical guidelines to support a sustainable African research enterprise led by and for the African people.

            Receives the Albany Medical Center Prize, awarded annually by the New York medical center in honor of significant healthcare advancements that improve patient care.

2011:    The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, with co-author Karl Giberson, published by IVP Books. The book answers common questions about Darwin, evolution, the age of the earth, the Bible, the existence of God, and the fine tuning of the universe, in response to the new atheists, creationists, and adherents of intelligent design.

            Francis Collins:  “In founding BioLogos, it was important to collect the most commonly asked questions about science and faith, and propose possible answers.  This book aimed to capture those in a readily accessible form.”

2012:    The NIH announces increased support for Alzheimer’s research. Over the past eight years, Alzheimer’s support from the U.S. Congress has more than quadrupled.

Receives the Pro Bono Humanum Award from the Galien Foundation.

2013:    The NIH “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” (BRAIN) initiative is announced at the White House by President Obama. The public-private collaborative effort aims to provide a more dynamic understanding of the brain by developing new experimental tools examining the ways in which individual cells and complex neural circuits in the brain work.

2015:    The NIH “All of Us Research Program” is announced, an effort to gather data from one million or more people living in the United States to accelerate research, improve health, and further the delivery of precision medicine by accounting for individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology.

            The NIH announces that it will no longer support invasive biomedical research involving chimpanzees.

2017:    The “Sound Health: Music and the Mind” initiative is launched in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, aiming to expand knowledge and understanding of how listening, performing, or creating music can have health and wellness applications in daily life.

President Donald Trump selects Collins to continue to serve as NIH director.

            Receives the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Public Service Award.

2018:    The NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) initiative is announced, a trans-agency U.S. government effort to develop scientific solutions to the national opioid public health crisis.

            Receives the Pontifical Key Scientific Award and the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize.

February 2020:  As concerns over COVID-19 grow, Collins and his NIH colleagues shift major parts of their attention and resources to accelerating treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus causing a global pandemic. 

April 2020:  NIH announces a new public-private initiative, ACTIV – Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, to speed the development of treatment options and a vaccine for COVID-19. The partnership includes the Food and Drug Administration, other federal agencies, and 16 pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck.

May 2020:         Announced as the 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate.