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Vol. LVIII, No. 1
January 13, 2006
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International Man of Mystery?
Chen Retires After 50-Year Association with NIH

He may have attended more meetings than any administrator in NIH history and belonged to more far-flung scientific committees than anyone who ever wore a coat and tie in federal service, but Dr. Philip S. Chen, Jr., former NIH associate director for intramural affairs, has a side that mocks the image of a career bureaucrat. The same guy who relished service as the HHS Arctic research representative to programs overseen by the National Science Foundation and U.S. State Department is also a back-roads motorcyclist, a trombone player and a shade-tree mechanic who recently spliced the burst fuel line in his van after a varmint bit the line in two.

At age 73, with a 50-year association with NIH (including over 41 years as an employee) behind him, Chen is still as enthusiastic about every topic under the sun as a brilliant grad student.
 
  Dr. Philip S. Chen, Jr., had a hand in many activities at NIH during his more than 41 years of employment. For example, he was responsible, during NIH's 100th anniversary in 1987, for bringing "The Centennial Anchor" to the intersection of Center and South Drives. Chen had the anchor trucked to NIH from the PHS Marine Hospital on Staten Island, from which NIH traces its origins as a one-room laboratory.
He is a fountain of anecdote, capable of recalling countless episodes of bureaucratic intrigue, the fine points of renal physiology, the drama underlying little-known NIH cooperation with the CIA and learned trivia of every stripe, including that the man who wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear did so near Chen's boyhood home town of South Lancaster, Mass.

Chen was actually born in St. Johns, Mich. ("the mint capital") to parents who were students at what was then Michigan State College. His dad became a chemistry professor and the family soon moved to Madison, Tenn., home of Madison College. When Chen was 6, his family relocated to South Lancaster, where his dad joined the faculty at Atlantic Union College.

Phil Jr. took to science at an early age and graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., as a physics major. "I actually took more chemistry than physics," he recalls. "But atomic and nuclear physics were my main interests." He did manage a single semester of zoology during a summer course at Harvard.

After graduating with high honors from Clark, he went to graduate school at the University of Rochester, studying pharmacology, including analytical chemistry and toxicology. Following up on the bone-seeking nature of plutonium and uranium, and intrigued by the affinity that many radioactive substances have for bone (recall that this was the height of the Cold War), Chen became a renal physiologist, studying calcium excretion in dogs. One of the first scientific papers that caught his interest was written by Dr. James A. Shannon, who would become both a prominent NIH director and Chen's benefactor. A highlight of his grad school career was participating in two atomic bomb tests in 1953 in Nevada.

Chen earned his Ph.D. in 1954 then embarked on a year-long National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Pharmacology, part of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. It was there that he met and married his wife, a studio photographer.

Upon returning to the United States, where the draft remained in effect although the Korean War was over, Chen returned to the University of Rochester as a junior scientist but also applied for a commission in all four uniformed services. "Otherwise, I simply would have been drafted," he recalls. Two days before he received his draft induction notice, Chen came to the NIH laboratory of Dr. Frederic C. Bartter as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service. "I was very lucky — I got in by the skin of my teeth."

Back in those days, the head of Chen's branch was Dr. Luther Terry, who would become Surgeon General. The Clinical Center was newly opened and half-empty, Chen recalls. He remembers working with Bartter (discoverer of Bartter's syndrome) in Rm. 8N222, then 7B03, where famed NIH scientist Dr. Sidney Udenfriend was across the hall and future NIH director Dr. Donald Frederickson roamed the halls smoking foot-long cigars (his wife, Chen notes, was the U.S. distributor for a Dutch cigar company).

Chen spent 37 months in the intramural research program, then was recruited back to Rochester, where he became assistant professor in the departments of radiation biology and biophysics and of pharmacology. The entire radiation biology and biophysics department was supported by an Atomic Energy Commission contract, so no one on staff had to apply for grants, he remembers. He spent 7 years doing research on bone and vitamin D at Rochester, then returned to Copenhagen for a year's sabbatical, courtesy of a Guggenheim fellowship, at the Institute of Biological Chemistry. Before leaving for Denmark, he had arranged to return to NIH in a year to join the Grants Associate (GA) Program, which became the premier training ground for the next generation of NIH administrative leadership. The switch from science to administration was hastened in part by allergies Chen had developed to laboratory animals.

After having completed his GA year, Chen came to Bldg. 1 to work for the Office of Program Planning and Evaluation. Thus began a history of administrative assignments that, for Chen, went like radioactive substances to the bone of the NIH mission: how to enhance training in biomedical science both at NIH and in U.S. medical schools (he visited many of them during one study) and protect NIH's training responsibility from budget-cutters downtown; and an early study of the field of bioengineering that anticipated the creation of NIBIB "long before it became an important subject at NIH — that was very satisfying."

In 1972, Chen was recruited to NIGMS by its then director Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., and served as associate director for program planning and evaluation, a stint that involved more visits to U.S. medical schools where Chen came to appreciate the impact of NIH extramural support. One of his assignments arose out of President Nixon's visit to China — Chen got the job of sorting out responses to acupuncture inquiries from the public.

After 2 years at NIGMS, Chen returned to Bldg. 1 in 1974 and spent the next 31 years serving a succession of NIH directors and intramural deputy directors in a variety of roles. He is especially proud of having launched the Senior Biomedical Research Service and the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT); proposing the early rules under which NIH'ers could perform outside work; becoming expert in a wide variety of pay and personnel policies (after all, he had been employed under at least three authorities during his NIH tenure — PHS reserve officer, regular Corps officer and Civil Service); stimulating NLM to establish the pioneering Arctic Health Web Site; and having served on an interagency committee with oversight of all major federal laboratories. Recalling his stint on a subcommittee investigating high-temperature superconductivity, he observes drily, "Some of the committees on which I served had short lifespans."

Looking back on the eight NIH directors under whom he served, Chen notes that each had his or her strengths. He said that in the distant past, the NIH deputy director for science (now intramural research) was the real second-in-command at NIH, and that the scientific directors at each institute were often considered more powerful than institute directors.

Chen also left his mark on basic science, having written a "most-cited" paper in 1956 on "Microdetermination of Phosphorus" and coauthoring the 1963 monograph, Biological Effects of Organic Fluorides.

In retirement, which began Jan. 2, Chen says he plans "to do a little bit of many things." He'll play his trombone, ride his 1984 Honda Shadow 500 motorcycle on rural roads in fair weather, tinker under the hood of his 20-year-old Nissan 300 ZX, make his annual pilgrimage to Scandinavia, and, next fall, journey to Australia and New Zealand to visit an old grad-school classmate. Travel was always an important factor in his acceptance of committee assignments; he recalls with delight a State Department-sponsored trip to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. "It's the land of fire and ice, with lots of snow-capped volcanoes and geysers — a spectacular display of nature."

The Fogarty International Center in 2005 named Chen its senior advisor for China, so he recently wrapped up work on some international agreements in that role. "Dr. Richard Wyatt [Chen's longtime deputy, whom he recruited out of Dr. Albert Kapikian's laboratory years ago] calls me the 'China desk' of this office."

Chen also plans to write a memoir, which will undoubtedly include the tale of his custodianship on NIH's behalf of a quantity of saxitoxin (also known as paralytic shellfish poison), which the CIA employed for a time in place of cyanide as a way out for agents in peril.

In honor of his founding of OTT, Chen will be honored Friday, Jan. 20 at the inaugural Philip S. Chen, Jr., Ph.D. Distinguished Lecture on Innovation and Technology Transfer. It will be held at 1:30 p.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10, and will feature former OTT director Dr. Maria Freire.

Chen looks back fondly on the rich variety of experiences and personalities offered by his NIH career, but notes that he nearly didn't make it to this milestone. On Thanksgiving Day in 1970, he was piloting a Cessna 150 over Rockville when the engine began sputtering. He had run out of gas.

"I managed to land in a Gaithersburg cow pasture, not far from the airport," he recalls. Soon thereafter he gave up his goal of earning a commercial pilot's license. "I became too busy with my NIGMS work," he says. "And I also reckoned that I was not a cautious enough pilot."

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