Front Page

Previous Story

Next Story

NIH Record vertical blue bar column separator
Distinguished Alumni Return
History Office Examines Fifties Intramural Research

By Ingrid Farreras

On Apr. 11, the Office of NIH History, along with NIMH and NINDS, sponsored a special symposium called "NIMH and NINDB Intramural Research in the 1950s." The purpose was to open the door for historical research on how the basic and clinical investigations programs at both institutes emerged and changed over the first decade of their existence. Alumni from the basic and clinical programs of each institute presented talks followed by discussion. Many scientists brought personal historical photographs, correspondence, unpublished documents, laboratory notebooks, artifacts, memos and other items from this period to add to the collection of the Office of NIH History.

Two Institutes, One Intramural Program

A dearth of trained mental health providers to treat the large number of military discharges and casualties related to psychological problems during World War II spurred Robert Felix, director of the Public Health Service's Division of Mental Hygiene, to propose a bill to create a National Neuropsychiatric Institute. The bill was introduced in 1945 and had three purposes: to promote research relating to the cause, diagnosis and treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders; to grant individual fellowships and institutional grants to train mental health personnel; and to provide financial aid to states for the formation or improvement of community mental health services, clinics and treatment centers.

Scientist emeritus Dr. Julius Axelrod (l), who was in NIMH's Laboratory of Clinical Science, chats with Dr. Irwin Kopin, formerly of the same lab, and subsequently NINDS scientific director.

When President Harry Truman signed the act on July 3, 1946, the institute had been renamed the National Institute of Mental Health to reflect a broader and more optimistic mission of promoting mental health and combating mental illness. While the act appropriated funds for the erection and equipment of hospital and laboratory facilities, it was not until 3 years later, on Apr. 15, 1949, that funding was obtained to carry out the institute's program, leading the PHS's Division of Mental Hygiene to be abolished in favor of an NIMH administratively joined to the National Institutes of Health. Developed with the philosophy that the government should provide scientists the maximum amount of freedom and not hamper their progress by directing or regimenting their activities, the creation of NIMH marked the beginning of the federal government's large-scale support of research in mental health.

The need to supplement and expand the PHS's existing research programs to tackle the country's major causes of crippling and disability led Congress to establish the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness (NINDB, the predecessor of today's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS) on Nov. 22, 1950. Because no funds and staff were available for the new institute's operation during its first year, the surgeon general designated NIMH to administer the NINDB's intramural program. Dr. Seymour Kety was appointed scientific director of the joint institutes' basic research program; the neurological and blindness research that had, until then, been supported by NIMH and NIH's Division of Research Grants, were transferred to NINDB's intramural program.

On hand for the meeting were NINDB and NIMH alumni (from l) Dr. Mortimer Mishkin, Dr. Allan Mirsky, Dr. Theodore Zahn, Dr. Eugene Streicher, Dr. Irwin Feinberg, Dr. Louis Sokoloff, Dr. Virgil "Ben" Carlson and Dr. James Birren.

Laboratories and branches were established along disciplinary rather than disease-oriented lines. The intramural research program continued to emphasize a broad and multidisciplinary approach to basic and clinical research throughout the 1950s until the joint NIMH-NINDB basic research program was separated and each institute developed its own basic research program in 1960.

Up to Top