Uncle Sam: Scientist  pg. 3

Also in the early 1900s, the agency that was the precursor to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) moved from strictly focusing on infectious and contagious scourges like cholera and yellow fever, to developing vaccines and antitoxins, and then to investigating noncontagious problems, like pellagra, that were caused by dietary deficiencies.

Immigrant spirit

Some of these needs arose as immigrants, escaping wars, oppression and poverty overseas, poured onto American shores, causing public health issues to bubble up to the surface of the American consciousness. Many of these immigrants also brought with them something else – a background based in scientific theory.

Explains Cyrus Mody, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rice University who teaches about the history of innovation and technology, “During the 1920s and ’30s, some of those immigrants – and especially the children of immigrants -- really started to penetrate into the American scientific elite.”

For example, the three American physician-researchers who were primarily responsible for the polio vaccine were of immigrant Jewish stock: Albert Sabin was born in Russia, Hilary Koprowski was from Poland, and Jonas Salk was born in America to Russian immigrant parents. Spanish-American biochemist Severo Ochoa won the 1959 Nobel Prize for his work on the synthesis of RNA. French-born Nobel laureate Andre Cournand came to the United States in 1930 and later helped develop cardiac catheterization, a technique that revolutionized treatment of heart disease.

Essentially, as a new pool of intellectuals began establishing laboratories in the U.S., the quality of biomedical science quickly vaulted to the top of the chain.

The Depression almost destroyed this progress when the endowments for many foundations supporting research crashed with the stock market. Thanks to the efforts of Louisiana Senator Joseph E. Randall, Alabama Senator (Joseph) Lister Hill and others, the U.S. government stepped in and began funneling money into the NIH to support basic scientists working on fundamental medical research, and to prevent America from losing its edge in this arena.

The aftermath of World War II solidly established the NIH as the major player in American biomedicine. For the first time, leaders realized that federal investments in basic research could actually shore up a struggling economy. Largely under the directorship of James A. Shannon, M.D., Ph.D., the NIH budget expanded from $8 million in 1947 to more than $1 billion in 1966. What’s more, those dollars had a direct impact on state revenues, because they were spread to 128 academic medical centers scattered across the country.

“Research dollars flow back into the local community with a five-fold multiplier effect,” notes Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Pharmacology.

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