NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NIH History, a ‘Marbled Cake’

First Harden Lecture Launches Annual Event, Seminar Series

Harden, Schor, and Pelis smile into camera
At the first lecture named in her honor is Dr. Victoria Harden joined by Dr. Nina Schor (c), NIH deputy director for intramural research, and Dr. Kim Pelis, director of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.

Photo:  richard wyatt

The Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (ONHM) launched a new talk, the Victoria A. Harden Lecture in NIH History, that will be delivered annually.

Held May 4 in Wilson Hall, the lecture was the first event of ONHM’s newly introduced seminar series, History and Context. 

The inaugural lecture, “Telling NIH History, Story by Story,” was delivered by the talk’s eponym, ONHM founding director Harden, who began working at NIH in 1984 at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

By 1986, she had been chosen as ONHM’s first director during the celebration of NIH’s centennial.

“There will never be such a thing as one single exhaustive history of NIH,” she emphasized. “Should anyone try to squeeze all the government policy, all the laboratory and clinical research, all the training of young scientists and all the staff contributions into one narrative, it would be so large and so detailed that it would be unreadable. The story of NIH is like a marbled cake: One can cut through it in many different ways to tell, in detail, specific parts of the story while not losing sight of the larger context—the cake as a whole.”

Harden and Wyatt smile with lecture slide projected behind them
Harden and Dr. Richard Wyatt, deputy director of the Office of Intramural Research

Photo:  Gabrielle Barr

Each writer’s unique perspective, with its individual biases and emphases, adds to the richness of NIH history, Harden pointed out. 

“Just choosing which facts to include in a history means leaving out others,” she said. “So the notion of some all-encompassing, definitive true history is unrealistic. Historians of the future will begin with all the different accounts and other evidence that we leave behind. This fact is of key importance so that NIH history continues to be written.”

Harden retired in 2006, but has continued to serve as a special volunteer, recording oral histories with veteran NIH officials and advocating for preservation of important artifacts and narratives.

Dr. Victoria Harden at podium
The inaugural lecture, “Telling NIH History, Story by Story,” was delivered by the talk’s eponym, ONHM founding director Dr. Victoria Harden.

“Historians always have the last word,” she concluded. “To make sure historians in the future know about NIH contributions to human health, [ONHM] needs your help. I implore you to think about donating photographs, artifacts and instruments, about sitting for an oral history, about writing your own memoirs.”

The full lecture is archived online at—Carla Garnett

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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