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Science Writer Bennett Retires After 39 Years

By Rich McManus

Science writer Bobbi Bennett retired after 39 years at NIH at the end of November, having regarded her career as one long feast at the table of American biomedical research. At a retirement party on Dec. 3, she said her career was blessed by working with some of the brightest and finest researchers at NIH. "I feel like I had one of the luckiest careers ever," she said. Nagged by allergies to mold in recent years, she decided it would be healthier to stay home.

Bennett was one of the few two-way players in the science communications community here; she spent 11 years in various laboratories, honing science skills that she developed after earning a B.A. in chemistry from Immaculata College in her native Pennsylvania, then became a science writer for the last 28 years of her NIH experience. Along the way, she always managed to find what she affectionately calls "buddies" and fascinating personalities. Her luck in this regard began immediately upon joining NIH in 1963.

Bobbi Bennett
"I was hired by the Blood Bank to work with a visiting Japanese scientist named Dr. Mitsuo Yokoyama to study the immunochemistry of rare blood groups. He had done work in forensic medicine for the Tokyo police department, and had solved many cases," said Bennett.

American novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, best known for his Perry Mason stories, based some of those tales on Yokoyama's cases, and even dedicated a novel to him, Bennett said, "in glowing terms." Bennett felt well launched by "a great year in the Blood Bank."

Dr. Harvey Alter was also there at the time, and had just found — along with Dr. Baruch Blumberg who was then in NIAMD, the forerunner of NIDDK — what later became known as the Australia antigen, the surface antigen of the hepatitis B virus.

When Yokoyama's stint at NIH was up, Bennett moved to NCI's new immunology branch in 1964.

The field of immunology was just coming into its own, with bone marrow transplantation in its infancy, and Bennett was excited to be part of it. Back then she and her boss were the only ones at NIH doing HLA (human leukocyte antigen) typing. "It was a fabulous place to work," she says, reeling off the names of former NCI colleagues, "and an exciting time for immunology."

During the Vietnam war years, NIH hosted a cadre of young physicians who fulfilled their military duty by serving 2 years in the Public Health Service doing research. Bennett recalls that many of those who came through the immunology branch "were terrific individuals. There was a great deal of camaraderie in the lab, which you almost never see in an office situation."

Bennett headed NIH's first co-rec softball league in this era, and managed one of the four teams in the league as well as played third base.

But all was not fun and games with her career. "I had reached an invisible ceiling in the lab, beyond which you could go no further without an advanced degree," she said. Bennett had planned to work a few years at NIH and then go to graduate school. "But the longer you're away from school, the harder it is to go back."

She had been editor of both her high school and college newspapers, and always enjoyed writing. When NIAID's information office had an opening for a writer with a science background, Bennett applied and won the job. Under the tutelage of a gifted mentor in the office, she quickly regained her writing and editing proficiency, and began turning out stories on malaria and other parasitic diseases, asthma and allergies. She proudly recalls having written the press release on the first biosafety experiments involving recombinant DNA. "It was an exciting time to be at NIAID — the people were great, the scientists were top notch. I always say I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time."

She left NIH in 1979 briefly to be editor of the monthly trade magazine at what was then the National Bureau of Standards. "I realized the first day I was there that this wasn't the place for me," she recalls. Fortunately, the dental institute had an opening for a writer and Bennett returned, grateful to find an institute that valued science writers. After a year at what was then NIDR, she joined the Division of Public Information in OD to organize science writers' seminars, which turned out to be the best part of her NIH career.

Local science reporters had asked NIH to provide state-of-the-art seminars at which journalists could meet top intramural scientists and get background material that would bolster their ability to report research findings accurately. Bennett organized dozens of them over the years, assisted by NIDDK's Dr. Alan Schechter. "The joy of working with Dr. Schechter as my mentor and advisor was the best part of my job," she said. Standout seminars included a 1987 NIH Centennial event at the Cloister, which was the first meeting ever held in the newly reopened former convent, and one on human embryo research timed for a week before the recommendations of a panel on that subject, convened at the request of then NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus. This proved so valuable to reporters that several called later to thank her for enlightening them on the new avenue of research.

Bennett's other great mentor was Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., former NIH deputy director for science, emeritus, who hosted special Friday morning scientific seminars in Stone House where cutting-edge research was presented by scientists who were brought by the scientific directors of each institute. Bennett attended these as a representative of the public affairs community.

"That was a golden opportunity," she said. "Only the best and brightest intramural scientists were invited. It was the most civilized seminar at NIH. We sat on sofas or plush chairs, and a butler served coffee on a silver tray...Stetten was a fabulous, brilliant, warm man. He was probably the person I most admired at NIH, just a golden individual."

Bennett also served briefly as an information official in the nascent human genome office in OD, when Dr. James Watson headed the program. She eventually rose to chief of the Science Communications Branch in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison. Her main responsibility in recent years has been production of the NIH Word on Health, a consumer health publication that she launched in 1996. It is distributed to every newspaper in the country, as well as to health professionals and other requesters. She was also charged with producing several authoritative scientific fact sheets — one on medical uses of marijuana, which came to be the bane of her existence (she became, by default, the NIH spokesperson on the issue and had to field phone calls from reporters and impassioned advocates of both legalization and use of pot as medicine) — and one on radiation (following the government's admission of conducting or supporting studies that exposed unwitting U.S. citizens to radioactive materials), which answered the deepest call of her federal career: helping people in need.

"I always felt this was a great place to work because we're helping people," she said. "My greatest satisfaction has been helping people and their loved ones with health problems. That's something we must never forget. It's why we're here."

Bennett elected a federal career "because of John F. Kennedy." During the summer between her junior and senior years of college, she had a job at the Department of Agriculture. Every week, college students in federal jobs were bused to Constitution Hall to hear Cabinet members and other officials give lectures; U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Justice William O. Douglas were especially memorable, she recalls. But at the start and end of the summer, the students were invited to the White House lawn, where President Kennedy personally urged the youngsters to consider careers in government.

Bennett plans an active retirement. She intends to "take the advice of my own newsletter" and exercise daily, do genealogical research, visit museums, do a little freelance travel writing (her husband Herb is an avid photographer and can illustrate her work), help "save the whales," and take classes so that she can continue the habit, honed at NIH, of staying young by staying intellectually challenged. She is also deeply interested in advocating for better care of the elderly: "There's so much to be done to help people in this country who are not getting a fair deal," she says.

Not many are aware that Bennett has an adventurous side that she rarely revealed on the job. Ever since her teen years, she loved Porsche automobiles. At NIH, she worked with a doctor who was selling his car with only 10,000 miles on it. She elicited from him a promise to teach her how to drive a 5-speed stick, and soon took ownership of an orange Porsche 912. She joined the Porsche Club of America, rising to membership chair of the D.C. chapter, and became a rally enthusiast and a corner worker at the club's driver ed schools at Summit Point race track in West Virginia. "I even met the grandson of Dr. Porsche, the original designer," she says, and once won the ladies tech quiz on her particular model at a Porsche national convention.

She can't drive off into the sunset in her Porsche, though, because she sold it awhile ago "to an NCI scientist who promised to give it TLC, and even built a heated garage for it." But she does want her many friends around NIH to know she intends to keep in touch, and is available for lunch most any time.

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