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Vol. LIX, No. 23
November 16, 2007

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Church Volunteers From 1954-1975 Reunite at Clinical Center

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Eating only lima beans. Sleeping with weights on your eyes. Drinking a mixture of corn oil and skim milk. It might seem strange now, but these were some of the diets that a group of Mennonites and Church of the Brethren members who served as healthy volunteers consumed while participating in clinical research studies at the Clinical Center from 1954 to 1975. About 25 volunteers, together with their family members, reunited recently at the CC and traced how their contributions decades ago changed the course of clinical research for the better.

The reunion, spearheaded by Dr. Jim Conrad, a member of the Mennonite Church from Perkasie, Pa., offered a chance for the group to reflect on their experiences as “creatures made in the image of God [who] need to express God’s love by how we live our lives.” For these faith communities, service to those who are ill exemplifies “another way of living.” Both groups are recognized peace churches affiliated with the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, now the Center on Conscience & War.


  Judy and George Reimer met at the CC and married shortly thereafter.  
  Judy and George Reimer met at the CC and married shortly thereafter.  
One volunteer recounted how his mother often told him, “Someday you’ll serve your country in the Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) instead of the military.” Local draft boards accepted boys’ participation in public service projects in lieu of military service. Girls from both churches generally contributed 1 or 2 years to youth service activities such as medical or social work.

CC director Dr. John Gallin noted that, like many of the researchers in his generation who joined the Public Health Service, healthy Mennonite and Brethren volunteers also share a commitment to “save life and not destroy it,” to quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 NIH dedication speech. Although many came to the PHS during the Vietnam War from 1959 to 1975, the Mennonite and Brethren volunteers came to NIH as early as the Korean War in 1954.

Mandy Jawara of the CC Office of Patient Recruitment & Public Liaison updated the group on the Clinical Research Volunteer Program, which began in 1954 as a collaboration between NIH and the Mennonite and Brethren church’s service agencies, which in turn formed their own volunteer services. Until 2006, 50 to 100 students a year came to live at the CC while participating in clinical research and earning academic credit for their service. Jawara, who coordinates the program, said that although it has changed—healthy volunteer students no longer live on the patient care units—its mission of providing assistance to ICs whose research involves healthy volunteers remains the same.

Joyce Bohn

Joyce Bohn displays a 1957 Washington Post article describing her experience as a healthy volunteer at NIH. Bohn, who came from a family of 10 children and couldn’t afford college, was one of several in the group who received a year of tuition at American University in exchange for service as a healthy control subject. She bonded so closely with her roommate, an osteoporosis patient, that the roommate loaned Bohn all of her university expenses without interest so she could continue her studies and the two friends would not be separated. Taking the roommate up on her offer, Bohn met her husband at the Church of the Brethren’s Bridgewater College. “My life changed tremendously because of NIH,” she said, wiping away tears.

In his welcome to the group, Gallin described the numerous medical advances from CC history—none of which would have been possible without healthy volunteers’ participation as control subjects. “We will never be able to thank you appropriately. Your contributions to society have been enormous,” he said. Dr. Allan Mirsky of NIMH and Dr. Robert Shamburek of NHLBI gave presentations on the clinical impact of the group’s assistance on mental and cardiac health research.

According to Mirsky, many volunteers helped NIMH researchers standardize tests of attention, in part by participating in a 1956 study that has been cited in the literature more than 1,000 times and led to development of the continuous performance test (CPT). Thanks to these control patients, NIMH researchers also compared psychological test performance in seizure-disorder patients; described behavioral effects of the first effective anti-psychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia; contrasted behavioral and physiological effects of anti-psychotic drugs and sedatives; and described effects of stimulant drugs in healthy volunteers through sleep deprivation studies. Mirsky reminisced about coming to campus in the middle of the night to play billiards with a BVS volunteer who hadn’t slept for 70 hours. “She couldn’t do a CPT, but she could complete more challenging tests, including beating me at pool!”

The Amish and Mennonite populations have the highest percentage of a rare genetic disorder called sitosterolemia, in which plant cholesterol becomes extremely high because the body is unable to excrete it into the bile for removal from the body. By observing volunteers from these communities, researchers developed drugs to block cholesterol’s absorption in the intestines; the drugs are now used in millions of patients with ordinary cholesterol disorders.

Marian Payne, a normal volunteer in 1956 who returned to the CC in the late 1990s as a sito-sterolemia patient and participated in investigational treatments, said that if it wasn’t for NIH’s research, “I wouldn’t be here today or be in the health I enjoy today.”

Shamburek also unearthed hundreds of historic documents to show the group, including media coverage from the time, much of which brought exclamations from his audience as several people recognized themselves.

Ruth Martin
Ruth Martin, one of the visitors from the faith communities, looks at the collections of photos and articles brought by participants in the reunion to share with the group.

After tours of the CRC, the group reconvened to tell stories of their experiences and pore over photos and articles. The recollections shared a common theme: how much the volunteers’ lives changed as a result of coming to the CC. Carson Good discovered social work, which became his career. Two couples in the group—Marilyn and Dave Verbeck and George and Judy Reimer—met at the CC and married shortly thereafter.

The volunteers—all of whom were 18 or older, many of them away from their rural communities for the first time when they came to NIH—especially appreciated the exposure to diverse cultures in the Washington area. In their free time they went to Washington Senators baseball games, boated on the Potomac or attended concerts and sporting events. One participant said, “The culture and social learning we received while at NIH molded our lives to this very day.” NIH Record Icon

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