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Tradition Exported to Stokes Labs
Era of Scientific Distinction Ends for Bldg. 3

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Though it never enjoyed as lofty a designation as, say, Bldg. 1 or Bldg. 2, Bldg. 3 — now being evacuated, or rather, "decommissioned" as its resident scientists prepare to decamp for the new Louis Stokes Laboratories (Bldg. 50) — never took a back seat to any building on campus when it came to scientific distinction. Among some 19 scientists working there circa 1950-1951, 15 went on to become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and three of those subsequently became Nobel laureates, according to longtime laboratory chief Dr. Earl Stadtman, who is one of the NAS members.


The building, once home of the entire National Heart Institute (which still had three and a half labs there until recently), also harbored one of the world's few anaerobic laboratories (a facility from which all the oxygen had been pumped out), hosted several powerful magnets for NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy and EPR (electron paramagnetic resonance) in its sub-basement, and allegedly was the site of pioneering animal trials preceding development of the world's first implantable heart pacemaker. This latter feat was accomplished in the Bldg. 3 attic, said historian Dr. Buhm Soon Park, a postdoctoral fellow with the DeWitt Stetten Jr. Museum of Medical Research at NIH. He was busy — along with photo archivist Margaret Wood — in late March and April, cataloguing items of historical interest from Bldg. 3, videotaping the entire building and interviewing many of its senior scientists. "You really can write a book solely about Bldg. 3," claims Dr. Victoria Harden, NIH historian and director of the Stetten Museum. Park is preparing an article on the building titled, "Cradle of Excellence: Biochemists in Bldg. 3 of NIH, Circa 1950."

A rear view of Bldg. 3 in December 1938

Bldg. 3 was completed in December 1938 at a cost of $328,000 and was originally designated the Public Health Methods and Animal Unit. It was built, according to the NIH Almanac, "to provide space for offices, laboratory research, and animal breeding."

"NIH wasn't plural back then," notes Park. "It was still the National Institute of Health."

The building had a sub-basement, basement, three floors, and was topped by a usable attic. Throughout its 53-year history as a laboratory (it will enjoy a second life as administrative space, once it is renovated by the Office of Research Services), Bldg. 3 was characterized by an unusually inclusive conviviality, Park has found. Dr. Earl Stadtman, who along with his wife Dr. Thressa Stadtman spent much of his career in the building (they are the main topic of the exhibit Park will debut next year), kept scrapbooks including group photos over the years. The photos, loaned to Park for the exhibit, bear witness to the building's communal spirit — year after year, broad grins spread across faces of men and women of various ages and cultural backgrounds.

"Many people have said that the scientists, technicians and secretaries who work in the building think of one another as belonging to a family," Park reports. "Whenever there is a party or other social gathering, everyone is invited."

One of the defining characteristics of the building is its "open door" policy, said Park. "The doors of every office are usually open — no one needs an appointment to drop in on a section chief or a lab chief."

Park, who presented a public lecture at NIH last June on scientific achievement within NIDDK's Laboratory of Molecular Biology — which also boasted an unusually high morale — credits a series of "strong personal connections" with bolstering the scientific success of Bldg. 3. For instance, Dr. James A. Shannon, who once was scientific director of the heart institute before rising to NIH director from the mid-1950s through 1968, recruited top people he knew from academia, including Dr. Christian B. Anfinsen, who shocked colleagues at Harvard University by leaving for NIH at a time when it wasn't a prestigious career move.

Nobel Laureate Dr. Christian Anfinsen (standing, r) had a Bldg. 3 laboratory in the early 1950's that included (seated, from l) Juanita Cooke, Dr. Thressa "Terry" Stadtman, Barbara Wright, and (standing) Dr. Richard Hendler.

The following excerpt from the Anfinsen papers at NLM's Profiles in Science web site addresses this move, and exemplifies the power of personal connections:

"In 1950, James Shannon, then [scientific] director of the National Heart Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, invited Anfinsen to become chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology. Many of Anfinsen's colleagues were surprised by his move from the prestige of Cambridge to a federal position in Bethesda. But, as Anfinsen recalled in 1985, 'It was hard to turn down this offer, partly because of its scientific potential, and also because the move would double my salary overnight.' Over the course of the next three decades, Anfinsen's various laboratories in Bethesda would sponsor an astonishing array of talented postdoctoral and staff researchers including future NIH director Donald S. Fredrickson, future Nobel Laureate Martin Rodbell, and Michael Sela, future director of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel."

A Who's Who of Bldg. 3 alumni circa 1950, compiled by Earl Stadtman, includes an impressive genealogy of productive friendships and associations. From the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, which once had labs in 3, came NAS members Arthur Kornberg (1959 Nobel laureate), Leon Heppel and Bernard Horecker. Herbert Tabor joined this group for lunch seminars every day. Hailing from the National Heart Institute were NAS inductees James Shannon, Robert Berliner, B.B. Brodie, Sidney Udenfriend, Christian Anfinsen (1972 Nobel laureate), Earl and Thressa Stadtman, Bernhard Witkop and Julius Axelrod, who was a student there in 1950 and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1970. Other distinguished alumni of the building include Jack Orloff, who became scientific director at NHLBI, Robert Bowman, Martha Vaughan, and two scientists whom Earl Stadtman is careful to point out "only had offices in Bldg. 3": Luther Terry, a future U.S. Surgeon General, and Nathan Shock, who became an authority on gerontology.

Stadtman, himself a legendary mentor, once hosted two future Nobel laureates in the Laboratory of Biochemistry that he headed for many years — Michael Brown (who shared the prize in 1985 with fellow NIH alumnus Joseph Goldstein) and Stanley Prusiner (1997).

Historian Dr. Buhm Soon Park (r) meets with Dr. Earl Stadtman in Stadtman's office in Bldg. 3.

As the scientific sun sets on Bldg. 3 this spring, most of its alumni are moving a short distance across South Dr. to Bldg. 50, whose immense shadow nearly touches the old structure. Stadtman's old Laboratory of Biochemistry, now headed by his protégé Dr. P. Boon Chock, is headed to 50, along with Dr. Edward Korn's Laboratory of Cell Biology, the Laboratory of Cell Signaling headed by former Stadtman postdoc Dr. Sue Goo Rhee, and Dr. James Ferretti's structural biophysics section of the Laboratory of Biophysical Chemistry.

There had been an effort, historian Park reports, to preserve the old anaerobic laboratory (completed in spring 1967), whose requirements for a nitrogen atmosphere were met by a gigantic metal bulb filled with liquid nitrogen just outside Bldg. 3. Scientists from abroad were still conducting experiments there as recently as mid-March. But a decision has yet to be made to preserve the historic facility.

Dr. Richard Bray (l) monitors Joe Davis, who is at work in Bldg. 3's anaerobic (oxygen-free) laboratory. The last experiments were conducted in this special room in early March; the lab's fate is uncertain.

Park predicts that Bldg. 3's legendary collegiality will survive the move to more modern laboratory space. "They will still be close to one another in Bldg. 50," he said.

Demolition of lab facilities in Bldg. 3 is expected to begin in spring 2002, with renovation as office space scheduled for completion in summer 2004, said John Morris of the Design, Construction and Alteration Branch, DES. The term "decommissioning," explains Bob Sheridan of DCAB, means "decontaminating — it's what the environmental people have to do, such as asbestos removal, stripping the walls, etc." Conversely, commissioning means "making sure all the systems, like air-balancing, work properly. It's making all the little pieces fit together so that the building is ready for move-in," Sheridan said.

An undated photo of Bldg. 3, with vintage automobiles parked out front

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