April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

JOE JACOBS WAS FRESH OUT OF YALE medical school when the National Health Services Corps, which had paid for most of his medical education in exchange for services to be rendered, sent him to work as a pediatrician at the Indian Medical Center in Gallup, N.Mex. As he and his wife, Mary Jane, drove through the town in the heart of Navajo country, their radio tuned to a tribal station, the reality of their new posting hit home. “You know,” said Mary Jane, “we’re really going to be in the minority here.”

Jacobs, whose mother was a full-blooded Mohawk and whose father was part Cherokee, shot back, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ kemo sabe?”

Today, a dozen years later, Jacobs, 46, truly is in the minority. Last October he became the house maverick in that citadel of medical orthodoxy the National Institutes of Health when he was appointed director of the new Office of Alternative Medicine. His mission is to investigate untested therapies, chosen from an array that includes homeopathy, herbalism, massage—or just about anything not taught in med school. Though the self-described “preppy Indian” is a licensed M.D., he understands why many people would pin their hopes on unconventional medicine. “Alternative practitioners may be less invasive, cheaper, and they may take a more holistic approach,” says Jacobs. “They may be more concerned about patients’ emotions in addition to their physical needs. Our job is to clarify how effective some of these treatments are.”

A study published last January in the New England Journal of Medicine found that as many as one in three Americans is trying alternative remedies, spending in all nearly $14 billion a year on them. With just $2 million of the NIH’s $10 billion budget to spend, Jacobs will have to focus on only the most promising. “We’re not talking necessarily about whether something cures or not,” says Jacobs. “One of the bottom lines we want to look at is: Do they make someone’s life a little better?”

Jacobs does not view the orthodox and unorthodox as incompatible. During his three years at the medical center in Gallup, he notes, parents sometimes sought the advice of local medicine men before they brought in their children. And the medicine men were welcomed into the hospital. “The attitude among most of the hospital staff was that traditional healers were like having a minister or rabbi visit a patient,” Jacobs says.

Jacobs’s openness to the spiritual side of healing can be traced to childhood years spent among members of his mother’s Mohawk tribe. Born the youngest of four children in Brooklyn, Jacobs was 8 when his mother, Susan Deer, moved the family to the Kahnawake Reservation near Montreal. (His father, John, had left the family when Joe was 3.) “It was a difficult life,” says Jacobs, whose house had no indoor plumbing. But it was there that he was introduced to the use of herbs in traditional healing—not to mention in home heating. He remembers a time his mother couldn’t get a fire going in their wood stove (their sole source of warmth) and called in another woman from the tribe for advice. The woman, Jacobs recalls, “took out some tobacco, which is very ceremonial, said some prayers in Mohawk, threw the tobacco into the stove and said, ‘Now try it.’ The stove worked.

The family moved off the reservation in 1956 and settled first in upstate New York, then in Union City, N.J., where Joe became the only member of his family to graduate from high school. While working at Columbia University’s computer center, Jacobs also enrolled as a student and earned a degree in biology in 1973. By that lime, Jacobs had decided he wanted a career with more human contact than computer work and began applying to medical schools. When a letter from Yale arrived at his house, Jacobs’s mother phoned him at the computer center. “I asked her whether it was thick or thin,” says Jacobs. “When she said ‘thin,’ I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, it’s probably a rejection.’ ” Then his mother, who had only a third-grade education, opened the letter. “In stammering and halting English, she began reading, ‘Dear Mr. Jacobs, I am pleased to inform you…’ At that point I went wild. It was beyond my wildest expectations. I still have my acceptance letter.”

While a med student, Jacobs met Mary Jane Clark, a graduate student in Chinese art history. They married in 1976, a few years before he was sent to New Mexico. During his work with the Navajos, Jacobs learned that the tribe required more than doctors to meet its health needs; it needed persuasive representation in Washington too. “I fell if I wanted to be an advocate for the Indian Health Service, my arguments would be strengthened by my having an M.B.A.,” says Jacobs. “It was a calculated mow not to be dismissed as a bleeding-heart liberal.” In 1985, supported by a fellowship, he earned a business degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School.

In his new post—which follows stints with the U.S. Public Health Service in Rockville, Md., and with the Aetna life insurance company in Hartford, Conn.—Jacobs will need all the clout that his dual degrees and experience can confer. “He is always going to be attacked by extremists on both sides” of the alternative medicine issue, says Barrie R. Cassileth, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and Duke University who is one of the advisers to the Office of Alternative Medicine. “Joe Jacobs is the kind of person who can do it. He doesn’t ruffle easily.”

That’s an attribute he will need as he commutes from his Bethesda, Md., office to his Guilford, Conn., home to spend weekends with Mary Jane, 43, who helps coordinate museum exhibits, and their children—Alexander, 6, and Catherine, 4. But Jacobs sees his strength coming from a different source—his Mohawk heritage. “I think my willingness to take on tough jobs appeals to my sense of adventure,” he says. “It’s what I’d call the reincarnation of the warrior spirit.”

LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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