Dr. Anthony Fauci is one of PEOPLE’s four People of the Year in 2020, and for good reason: the Brooklyn-born director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has been a guiding force in the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The 79-year-old calls the moment “the most difficult and devastating infectious disease and respiratory outbreaks that we’ve experienced in the last 102 years,” adding that it’s been particularly tough for Americans.
“You have a devastating public health challenge in the midst of a very divisive society, in a very hotly-contested political year. You put all of those ingredients together and it’s been quite challenging,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.
Here, a look at how Cornell grad Fauci rose to the top of his field.
Fauci, an immunologist, stepped into his role with NIAID in 1984, after joining the National Institues of Health in 1968. The position put him in the spotlight, working alongside President Ronald Reagan on matters of public health.
Fauci’s breakthroughs as the National Institutes of Health’s AIDS coordinator and director of the NIH’s Office of AIDS Research put him in the public eye, earning him copious respect in his field and at times, ire from figures like activist Larry Kramer (left, with researcher Mathilde Krim), who wanted him to do more to help.
“He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine,” Fauci recalled to the New York Times earlier this year, later explaining the two came to an understanding about their differences and went on to become close friends.
“I was the face of the federal government. I was the one out there trying to warn the public, and he was, too,” he told the Times. “That was his way of saying, ‘Hello? Wake up!’ “
Fauci’s work in the fight against AIDS earned him a spot on PEOPLE’s list of the 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year in 1990.
“I’m a scientist, and science is the thing that is immutable,” he said at the time. “Do the science correctly, and ultimately you will be doing good for people.”
In an April interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fauci detailed his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.
“Just by accident I developed a really close friendship with him because he came to the [National Institutes of Health] in the late ’80s when he was vice president and was thinking of running for president, and he sincerely wanted to learn about HIV.”
“He was a very modest, unbelievable human being. And he came in, he says, ‘I want to learn,’ ” Fauci recalled.
His relationship with the next president, Bill Clinton, “was different,” he said. “Clinton had all the right vibes about what to do. I had a good relationship with him, but it was quite formal, as you would have with respect to the presidency.”
In 2008, Fauci was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, who cited the doctor’s “determined and aggressive efforts to help others live longer and healthier lives.” The two worked together on the 2001 anthrax attacks and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which earmarked billions of dollars for AIDS research.
In his CNN interview with Gupta, Fauci called President Barack Obama “a very easy person to get along with and a really good, good human being.” Fauci’s role in the administration came into play as the world faced devastating Ebola and Zika crises.
With current President Donald Trump, the focus has of course been on the COVID-19 pandemic as Fauci continues work on the Coronavirus Task Force. And while Trump has often made his fluctuating feelings about Fauci public, “I don’t want to be pointing fingers at anyone or any administration,” he tells PEOPLE. “But as a society we are living in a very divisive state right now. I’ve never seen the extent of the divisiveness that we have today, which has led to hostility against public health measures. And that makes it much more difficult to address a public health outbreak when everyone needs to pull together.”
Much of Fauci’s job for the past year, he explains to PEOPLE, has involved using the media to try and help Americans not only understand the importance of adhering to public health measures (like mask wearing and social distancing), but to give them hope, he says, that “we can turn this around.”
To that end, he recently said in an interview with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that Americans should be able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by April or May of 2021. If enough people do get the vaccine, then “by the end of the second quarter of  you could have enough protection to this country that the pandemic as we know it will be well, well suppressed, below the danger point.”
Fauci married Christine Grady, head of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, in 1985. Together, they have three adult daughters, Jennifer, 34, Megan, 31 and Alison, 28.
Over the past year, Fauci has watched as his image has appeared on everything from socks to masks and even the nation’s top-selling bobblehead.
“It’s surrealistic and, in some respects, nice and amusing,” he tells PEOPLE. “But you can’t take that stuff seriously and start to think you’re a celebrity. When you start to think that, then you get into trouble. I’m a physician. I’m a scientist. And I’m a public health official.”
Nevertheless, in April he watched as Brad Pitt portrayed him on Saturday Night Live, an event that still makes him chuckle.
“I’m definitely not as good-looking as he is,” says Fauci. “But I think he did a great job.”
Watch the full episode of People of the Year: Dr. Anthony Fauci streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device. And pick up PEOPLE’s year-end double issue — featuring Fauci’s fellow People of the Year George Clooney, Regina King and Selena Gomez — on newsstands Friday.
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