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NIH at 80: Sharing a Timeless Message from President Roosevelt

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This Saturday, October 31, marks an important milestone in American public health: the 80th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. The President’s stirring speech, delivered from the steps of NIH’s brand-new Administration Building (now called Building 1), was much more than a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It gave voice to NIH’s commitment to using the power of science “to do infinitely more” for the health of all people with “no distinctions of race, of creed, or of color.”

“We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. And so, we must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength,” Roosevelt told the crowd of about 3,000. To get a sense of what it was like to be there on that historic day, I encourage you to check out the archival video footage above from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

These words from our 32nd President are especially worth revisiting for their enduring wisdom during a time of national crisis. In October 1940, with World War II raging overseas, the United States faced the prospect of defending its shores and territories from foreign forces. Yet, at the same time as he was bolstering U.S. military capacity, Roosevelt emphasized that it was also essential to use biomedical research to shore up our nation’s defenses against the threats of infectious disease. In a particularly prescient section of the speech, he said: “Now that we are less than a day by plane from the jungle-type yellow fever of South America, less than two days from the sleeping sickness of equatorial Africa, less than three days from cholera and bubonic plague, the ramparts we watch must be civilian in addition to military.”

Today, in the midst of another national crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—a similar vision is inspiring the work of NIH. With the aim of defending the health of all populations, we are supporting science to understand the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines for this disease that has already killed more than 225,000 Americans and infected more than 8.6 million.

As part of the dedication ceremony, Roosevelt thanked the Luke and Helen Wilson family for donating their 70-acre estate, “Tree Tops,” to serve as a new home for NIH. (Visitors to Wilson Hall in Building 1 will see portraits of the Wilsons.) Founded in 1887, NIH had previously been housed in a small lab on Staten Island, and then in two cramped lab buildings in downtown Washington, D.C. The move to Bethesda, with NIH’s first six buildings already dotting the landscape as Roosevelt spoke, gave the small agency room to evolve into what today is the world’s largest supporter of biomedical research.

Yet, as FDR gazed out over our fledging campus on that autumn day so long ago, he knew that NIH’s true mission would extend far beyond simply conducting science to providing much-needed hope to humans around the world. As he put it in his closing remarks: “I voice for America and for the stricken world, our hopes, our prayers, our faith, in the power of man’s humanity to man.”

On the 80th anniversary of NIH’s move to Bethesda, I could not agree more. Our science—and our humanity—will get us through this pandemic and show the path forward to brighter days ahead.

Links:

Who We Are: History (NIH)

Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (NIH)

70 Acres of Science” (Office of NIH History)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

8 Comments

  • Andrea Francesconi says:

    I absolutely LOVE this article and video. I have never been prouder to work at NIH.

  • DR. SAUMYA PANDEY, PH.D. says:

    Dr. Saumya Pandey (Ph.D.), heartily congratulates her American federal scientific and clinical research experts for celebrating NIH, Bethesda, Maryland, USA @ 80……………………………………Time and tide wait for none, and the brilliant achievements of NIH USA in the ever-expanding medical research deserve an applause!

  • Barb Bartkowiak says:

    Roosevelt’s comments were so inspiring and humane. I wish that our government leaders today could embrace this type of understanding and work for it.

  • Kalyanam Shivkumar MD PhD says:

    Thank you so much Dr. Collins, this is uplifting and indeed timeless.
    This talk was also featured in the editor’s page for the readership of JACC journals in this month’s issue
    The U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Universal Language of Humanitarianism https://www.jacc.org/doi/10.1016/j.jacep.2020.09.014

  • Michael B. says:

    Horton, R. Offline: COVID-19 — a crisis of power. The Lancet, 31 October 2020, 396: 1383.

    “… The struggle for health is a struggle for human dignity, liberty, and equity. But we must also meet our obligation to question power and its effects on truth, and truth and its effects on power. One importatn strand of public health is the struggle agains subjection.”

  • Mondal C. says:

    Thank you for such a nice post.

  • Kathleen says:

    Great post! I’m so encouraged by Roosevelt’s speech. Thank you for sharing.

  • CIMT says:

    Thank you …

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