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NICHD Celebrates 40th Year

By Robert Bock

NICHD recently marked its 40th anniversary with events commemorating its founding. The celebrations featured a "Hall of Honor" award ceremony to recognize its intramural scientists and extramural grantees who made outstanding contributions to both science and human health. The institute also held a scientific symposium to highlight some of the exceptional contributions made by NICHD-supported scientists in basic and clinical research.

"Forty years, let me tell you, is still childhood for an institute like this one," said NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni at the Hall of Honor ceremony held in conjunction with the NICHD council meeting. He added that 40 years is a short interval when compared to many other institutions. Of the top 100 governments in existence in 1900, Zerhouni explained, only 2 had survived until 2000. Institutions of advanced learning weathered the test of time with far greater success. Of the top 100 universities in existence in 1500, 75 percent had survived until 2000.

Zerhouni thanked NICHD's current and past advisory councils for advancing science and medicine through their efforts. He noted that NICHD's council, along with NIH's other advisory boards, peer review committees and ad hoc groups, is part of a network of 21,000 volunteer advisors. This network is larger than any of the consulting companies that the federal government relies on and provides NIH with far more advice from U.S. citizens than any other federal agency receives. "Selflessly, they give their time, they give their wisdom, with very little reward," he said.

NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander (l) and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (c) talk with Hall of Honor Awardee Dr. Robert E. Cooke.

NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander introduced the ceremony by noting that he had recently attended his high school class's 45th reunion. When his former classmates asked him about his occupation, Alexander explained that he was director of the NIH institute that supports research on improving pregnancy outcomes and promoting the healthy development of children. A few people, Alexander said, asked him to explain further.

"If your daughter or daughter-in-law needed help getting pregnant," he said, "most of the treatments she got were based on NICHD research."

Similarly, Alexander told his former classmates, if their daughter or daughter-in-law thought she might be pregnant but didn't know for sure, the home pregnancy test that she used came directly from NICHD research. Moreover, the screening for fetal abnormalities that she was offered during her pregnancy also was developed from NICHD research.

"The care her baby got at birth, especially if it was born prematurely, was guided by NICHD research," Alexander continued. Similarly, the blood tests given to all newborns to detect such debilitating disorders as phenylketonuria and newborn hypothyroidism also resulted from studies funded by the institute.

"Whenever your grandchild was put down to sleep on its back instead of on its tummy, like you did with your children, the parents were applying new information from NICHD's research and public education campaign to reduce the risk of your grandchild dying of SIDS," Alexander said.

The vaccine used to immunize their grandchildren against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was also developed in NICHD's research laboratories. Before immunization with the vaccine became routine, Hib meningitis was the most common cause of acquired mental retardation; now the disease is gone. NICHD research also provided parents with information useful for choosing among day care options, and offered the foundation of modern methods for teaching children to read.

NICHD Names 15 to 'Hall of Honor'

As part of its anniversary, NICHD named 15 outstanding scientists to its Hall of Honor, which recognizes exceptional contributions to advancing knowledge and improving maternal and child health. Above, NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander presents one of the awards to Dr. Maria I. New. Also earning the honor were Drs. Gary Becker, Ralph Brinster, Robert E. Cooke, Delbert A. Fisher, William Gahl, Roger Guillemin, Edward B. Lewis, Craig T. Ramey, John B. Robbins, Rachel Schneerson, Judith Vaitukaitis, Stephen T. Warren, Eric Wieschaus and Ryuzo Yanagimachi.

Other institute achievements were featured at NICHD's 40th anniversary scientific symposium on Sept. 8. Among the NICHD-supported speakers, five Nobel laureates and six Lasker Award winners addressed the more than 500 people who registered for the conference. Symposium presentations spanned the gamut of NICHD's mission to conduct and support research in virtually all aspects of human development, from conception through gestation, childhood, adolescence and the reproductive years.

During the 25 talks, speakers from the institute's intramural division as well as many grantees addressed a broad array of scientific topics. These included the genetic causes of mental retardation, the future of vaccine development at NICHD, embryo formation, animal models of development, the neuroendocrine basis of disease, personality formation, economic approaches to understanding families, and immigration.

At the Hall of Honor ceremony, Zerhouni said it is important to honor the research achievements of those who came before us. "These accomplishments will be seen as the beginning 500 years from now when, like universities, NICHD will still be around."

Birth of an Institute

Dr. Robert E. Cooke, a member of the first National Advisory Child Health and Human Development Council, recounted the events leading to the founding of NICHD. In November 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected President. Shortly thereafter, Cooke was asked to serve on a task force responsible for developing health and welfare programs for the new administration. Cooke, then chair of the pediatrics department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was entrusted with developing programs for advancing child health and proposed the establishment of a National Institute for Child Health at NIH.

Cooke had worked with the Kennedy family earlier. In 1958, his department had received funding from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation to establish a mental retardation research center. The center was one of several that would later conduct a large part of NICHD's research program in mental retardation. Cooke credited Eunice Kennedy Shriver with spearheading the foundation's funding of mental retardation studies.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Dr. Robert E. Cooke were among members of the first NICHD council authorized in 1962.

At a dinner she hosted to conclude NICHD's 40th anniversary celebration, Shriver recounted that, as a young man, her brother Jack was extremely frugal. At first, she said, he was reluctant to support the costs that a new institute would entail. She explained to him, however, that solutions to such troubling childhood problems as premature birth would only come through a strong research effort and would repay the initial investment over time.

At the time, the Public Health Service Act provided only for the creation of institutes focused on a particular organ system or disease category. New legislation would be needed to create an institute concerned with child health, which President Kennedy proposed.

Shriver arranged for herself and Cooke to visit with two elected officials who chaired committees overseeing health legislation, Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama, and Rep. John Fogarty of Rhode Island. Hill was immediately supportive, Cooke said. Fogarty dropped his initial opposition after learning that much of the new institute's research would focus on mental retardation, one of his favorite causes.

According to Cooke, NIH director Dr. James Shannon thought the institute should focus on bodily systems and proposed the institute be called the National Institute of Human Development. After some negotiations, a compromise was reached and the institute was given its current name.

Congress authorized NICHD in October 1962. "We will look to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for a concentrated attack on the unsolved health problems of children and of mother-infant relationships," President Kennedy said when he signed the bill into law. "This legislation will encourage imaginative research into the complex processes of human development from conception to old age."

The first meeting of the new institute's council was held on Nov. 14, 1963.
Shriver and Cooke (seated, c) are also members of the 2003 NICHD council.

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