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Post-Sept. 11 Security Measures Mimic NIH Response after Pearl Harbor

By Victoria A. Harden

Many of the procedures put into place after the national emergency on Sept. 11 recalled the response of NIH the last time America was directly attacked. That, of course, was at Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. In both cases, NIH was required to shift quickly from an open campus with scant security to a controlled environment while attempting to maintain a collegial environment for research.

On Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, Dr. Lewis R. Thompson, the NIH director, sent a memo regarding security to all NIH division chiefs "and Others Concerned," regarding identification for staff and visitors. Only visitors with a pass obtained "from the guard on duty at the entrance to the grounds" were to be admitted. The campus at this time was comprised of Bldgs. 1-6 plus the officers quarters on Cedar Lane and the original buildings of the Wilson family that now make up the Bldg. 15 group. The only entrance to Bldgs. 1-6 was via Wilson Drive.

A little over a week later, Thompson consulted with the supervising engineer of the federal government's Public Buildings Administration about installing access doors to roofs of NIH buildings and incinerators in case of incendiary bomb fires. Without such access, NIH firemen would have to fight any fires that might endanger the buildings via "attic dormer windows and a series of ropes fastened to chimneys...which, of course, is extremely perilous."

On Dec. 19, Thompson wrote to the chief of the Protection Division of the Office of Buildings Management regarding his need to arm the guards at NIH. "As we do not have a pistol range on which to hold target practice for these men," he asked if the NIH guards could use their range "for such times as it might be free for this purpose."

Thompson himself remained as NIH director only until Feb. 1, 1942. On that date, Surgeon General Thomas Parran shifted him back to the central Public Health Service staff and appointed Dr. Rolla E. Dyer, then director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, as NIH's wartime director.

Between September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and launched war in Europe, and Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. remained officially neutral, so preparations for wartime activity were kept to a minimum. The 3-year pre-war period was also the time that NIH built and moved to its Bethesda campus from the campus at 25th and E Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C. — near today's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — where it had been housed since 1904. On Oct. 31, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Bethesda to dedicate the new campus buildings. His speech linked NIH research to American defense: "We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. And so we must recruit not only men and materials but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength. That is what we are doing here."

In September 1940, Japan signed a mutual-assistance pact with Germany and Italy that turned the European struggle into a global war. In that same month, President Roosevelt signed the bill creating the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, even though Roosevelt was running for reelection in November on a promise to keep American boys out of war. Establishing a military draft required the Selective Service to evaluate the physical condition of potential recruits. NIH worked with the Selective Service and found that 43 percent of the examined men were unfit for general military service. The most common cause of rejection was defective teeth. Many of those rejected also had syphilis or other preventable health problems. Surgeon General Parran pointedly stated that "American manpower is going to waste in the worst crisis in our history because of neglect of medical, dental or surgical care."

The health problems of Americans highlighted in World War II were not forgotten after the war, when the National Institute of Dental Research, the National Heart Institute, and National Institute on Mental Health were created by Congress, and the original divisions at NIH were reorganized into the National Microbiological Institute and the Experimental Biology and Medicine Institute. The contributions of NIH scientists during World War II, which included research for combat problems as well as research to help industry on the homefront, focused almost entirely on war-related problems and contributed to the high regard for medical research that led to broad-based support for NIH when the war ended.

(Dr. Victoria A. Harden is the NIH historian.)


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