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Historian's Perspective
NIH Offered Haven from Antinepotism Rules

By Buhm Soon Park

Today, scientific couples working in the same institution are not rare. But that was not the case 50 years ago, especially in the universities, which adopted "antinepotism rules." The main purpose of the rules was to protect institutions from favoritism, and yet they were practiced primarily as a genteel form of discrimination against married women. No serious challenge had existed against the antinepotism rules until the 1960s, when the American Association of University Women began to publicize their unfairness.

With no official record for the employment of scientific couples at NIH, it is difficult to assess the extent, if any, to which the antinepotism rules were practiced at NIH. Based on available sources, NIH's first scientific couple was Jerald G. Wooley and Bernice E. Eddy, who married in 1938 when both worked as bacteriologists in Bethesda. Subsequently, there were Julius and Florence White, John and Elizabeth Weisburger, and Herbert and Celia Tabor.

Perhaps no example can better illustrate the effect of the antinepotism rules in academia than the case of Earl and Thressa Stadtman.

They first met in 1943 at the University of California in Berkeley when both worked as research assistants in the department of food technology. They married that year and enrolled in the graduate program of the department of biochemistry after the war. After completing their doctoral studies in 1949, both under the supervision of Horace A. Barker, they moved to the east coast for their postdoctoral training: Earl worked in Fritz Lipmann's laboratory at the Massachusetts General Hospital as an Atomic Energy Commission fellow; and Thressa secured a position as a research assistant in Christian Anfinsen's laboratory at Harvard Medical School. In 1950 they looked for academic jobs, following the lead of Earl who attracted interest from such schools as Berkeley, Yale, Tufts and Indiana. The Institute of Radiobiology and Biophysics at the University of Chicago made the most concrete offer of an assistant professorship with an annual salary of $5,000.

Earl R. Stadtman and Thressa C. Stadtman are shown in 1949 after receiving Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. Unable to overcome the barrier of antinepotism rules in academia, they elected to come to the National Heart Institute in 1950. They are both still researchers at NHLBI.

Earl Stadtman was particularly attracted to the research opportunity at Chicago, and yet he could not accept an offer that would rule out a fair position for his wife. He conveyed his honest disappointment yet unyielding determination to T.R. Hogness, director of the institute: "If my own future were the only consideration, I would not hesitate to accept your fine offer. However, my decision is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Stadtman is also a scientist and if possible, we would like to get located in an area where she can get a suitable position also." In his reply, Hogness gave advice: "If your decision is to be based upon simultaneous academic staff appointments for both you and Mrs. Stadtman, it may mean that you are closing your opportunities for an academic career, since I believe that the policy of the University of Chicago in this regard is no different from that of most other universities."

Meanwhile, Thressa Stadtman received an offer from Anfinsen, who had recently moved to the National Heart Institute as a lab chief. Anfinsen also offered Earl a position in view of his broad knowledge in the enzymatic study of metabolism. The couple decided to join NIH at an annual salary of $5,400 each, or GS-11 level.

The Stadtmans were soon joined by other married couples in Bldg. 3: Marjorie and Evan Horning; Martha Vaughan and Jack Orloff; and Barbara Wright and Herman Kalckar. It is interesting to note that all of these women scientists worked in the same room of Anfinsen's laboratory. Former NIH director and heart institute scientist Donald Fredrickson recalled: "I [as a clinical associate] got into a room of Thressa Stadtman's. I was there with four women and I thought all the scientists at the NIH were women."

This clustering had not so much to do with administrative obstacles as social conventions that made male scientists reluctant about working with female partners or even their wives. The level of their reservation was greatly reduced in 1954 when DeWitt Stetten, Jr., was appointed associate director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases (precursor of NIDDK). He set a precedent for other NIH couples by working closely with his wife in the same section of the laboratory.

There were scientists such as Bruce Ames and Marshall Nirenberg, who met, courted and married their life partners on campus. Among other notable couples were the future leaders of NIH, Alan Rabson (deputy director of NCI) and Ruth Kirschstein (now acting director of NIH). Kirschstein's remarkable career, which included becoming the first woman to head any institute at NIH (she became director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in 1974), started when she was a resident physician at the Clinical Center. Later, she worked as a researcher in the Division of Biologics Standards. This would not have been possible had the antinepotism rules been practiced at NIH as in academia.

(The author is a DeWitt Stetten Jr. fellow of the NIH History Office and NHLBI.)


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