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NIH Record

Record at 50 — May 1949-May 1999

Reminiscences from the NIH Record's First Editor

By Alexander Adler

As the first editor of the NIH Record, it is particularly gratifying for me to see that it still exists. Like a good wine, it has improved with age. And if I may be permitted to make a toast on its 50th anniversary — may it continue to mirror the extraordinary achievements of NIH scientists for many years to come.

Before you read further, glance at the masthead of any issue and note the partial view of the Shannon Bldg. Somewhat obscured by a tree is Rm. 140, the office where the house organ used to incubate a few weeks before going to press.

As a new employee, I had to become familiar fairly quickly with much of the NIH campus. So I first explored the grounds and a dozen or so laboratories, taking voluminous notes as I ran around meeting the people who could become a steady source of information on newsworthy events.

To be sure that I could maintain a flow of interesting articles, I attempted to adhere to a rigid schedule each month: trips to a select number of laboratories, weekly visits to the NIH Library to keep updated on published research reports, frequent meetings with NIH personnel staff and others involved with Recreation and Welfare. In a very short time I succeeded in putting in place a network of contacts who helped ease my earlier meanderings throughout the NIH campus.

Before interviewing NIH scientists, I always kept in mind the admonition of Judson Hardy, my supervisor. "Don't describe yourself as a reporter," he said, because a month earlier an irate NIH scientist had let all his colleagues know that he was embarrassingly misquoted in a newspaper article. Upon meeting this particular scientist, I assured him that the new house organ would set the record straight.

With the exception of NCI's program, most NIH research in those days focused on basic research and infectious diseases with an emphasis on tropical medicine. In 1949, the U.S. Public Health Service was concerned that many veterans were still suffering from diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and a variety of other tropical disorders.

Front page of the NIH Record's debut issue, May 20, 1949

Because of my World War II laboratory experience assisting military researchers seeking cures for tropical scourges, I realized the great importance of NIH efforts to combat disease in Africa. Thus, this became the lead story in the first issue (May 20, 1949). Similarly, this Army experience made me doubly sensitive to the ongoing quarrel between NIH scientists and antivivisectionists. And so, it was appropriate for me to headline the featured article in the second issue, "Antivivisectionists Thrown on Defensive."

Some of the brief chats with NIH scientists were memorable. Dr. Margaret Pittman of the microbiological institute, who had just become president of the D.C. Society of American Bacteriologists, shared some thoughts on the breeding of African violets, her hobby. I can still visualize the dazzling display of her plants on the laboratory windowsills.

Occasional chats with Dr. Leon Jacobs almost persuaded me to switch careers and return to an earlier interest — protozoology. My ability to speak Hungarian made it easier to get news from the laboratory of Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.

The NIH Record was not just a compendium of scientific achievements and personnel notices. It included folksy articles about the thespian activities of clerk-typists and program analysts, the expansion of the NIH Orchestra, the changing landscape, even the expanding roster of the NIH softball team, reflecting the small-town atmosphere on a campus that was yet to grow into the city-like community that exists today.

Yes, those were the casual days I fondly remember. Yet, upon reflecting on the rapidity of today's technological developments, I realize that most of us are now living longer and healthier lives — thanks to medical advances at NIH and elsewhere.

Alexander Adler, 79, the first of 11 NIH Record editors and a former violinist in the NIH Orchestra, retired from the federal government in 1984. A health communications consultant who still travels widely, he resides in Bethesda.

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