Front Page

Previous Story

Next Story

NIH Record vertical blue bar column separator
Importance of 'Scientific Biography'
NIH To Mark 2nd History Day, Sept. 21 in Lipsett

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, NIH will celebrate the second NIH History Day. The highlight of the day will be a lecture by Dr. Thomas Söderqvist, professor of the history of medicine and director of the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen. His most recent book, Science as Autobiography: The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne, is a personal and scientific portrait of the Nobel laureate. The lecture, "The Seven Virtues of Biography, or What's the Use of Biographies of Life Scientists?" will be held at 3 p.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10.

This year's theme is "Scientific Biography," and the goal is to point out how advances in biomedical research depend on individual curiosity, perseverance and creativity, augmented occasionally by serendipity.

Two short biographical sketches illustrate the theme. Dr. Charles Armstrong was the first intramural scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Margaret Pittman was the first woman to be named chief of an NIH laboratory.

Dr. Thomas Söderqvist
Armstrong (1886-1967), best known for his work on polio, studied many contagious diseases in his years with NIH. He received his Public Health Service commission in 1916 and made a name for himself conducting several successful studies of disease outbreaks. His first triumph came in 1920, when he correctly traced the cause of an outbreak of botulism among party-goers in Ohio to tainted olives. This discovery led to a half-million dollar upheaval of the olive canning industry in California.

Assigned to the Hygienic Laboratory (the predecessor for NIH) in 1921, Armstrong traveled to several locations to study epidemics including Haiti and a Navajo reservation. Attuned to the practical side of public health practice, Armstrong was able to solve several health mysteries. One important example is the case of usually fatal post-vaccination tetanus in children who had been given smallpox vaccinations. The culprit turned out to be the dressings, often celluloid shields, which harbored the tetanus spores.

His work in the new field of virology led to discoveries of new diseases and strains of diseases, and also led him to contract at least six of the diseases he studied, including psittacosis, encephalitis and Q fever. Armstrong served as chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases from 1940-1950.

Another fascinating scientific biography is that of Pittman (1901-1995), best known for her pioneering work in the production, testing and standardization of vaccines to prevent typhoid, cholera and pertussis. In a career that included 35 years with the Division of Biologics Standards, Pittman traveled to the far reaches of the world in her quest to develop and encourage the use of safe vaccines.

She began her research career at the Rockefeller Institute, where she studied the microbiology and immunology of infections caused by H. influenzae. Her discovery — that there were six varieties of the organism of which only one type caused serious disease in children — eventually led to the development of a vaccine for preschoolers in 1985.

Research on pertussis led Pittman to develop a usable mouse model for the disease in 1944. She then used the information gleaned from the mouse studies to develop a vaccine potency standard. These studies led to the international potency requirement issued by the World Health Organization in the 1950s. Pittman was also involved in finding and standardizing vaccines for other diseases, and was at the forefront of research in eliminating toxins from vaccines.

She began taking on more administrative duties when she was named chief of the Laboratory of Bacterial Products in 1958, but continued to work in the field. A leader in the field of biologics standards in the mid-20th century, Pittman died in 1995.

Bios like those of Armstrong and Pittman are crucial to history, and the Office of NIH History encourages senior NIH scientists to send digital or paper copies of their CVs along with photos, both candid and posed, to be added to the office's biographical reference files. On History Day, collection stations will be staffed in the lobbies of Bldgs. 10, 50 and 37 for those who want to donate in person. For more information about the event or special accommodation, contact Dr. Sarah Leavitt or (301) 496-8856 or consult

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, NIH will celebrate the second NIH History Day with a focus on scientific biography. The guest speaker for the event will be Dr. Thomas Söderqvist of the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, whose most recent book, Science as Autobiography: The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne, is a personal and scientific portrait of the Nobel laureate. Copies of the book are available for purchase in the FAES bookstore in Bldg. 10, Rm. B1L101.

Up to Top