A 9-year-old NIH grant awardee

If you're struggling to win your first National Institutes of Health grant, here's another reason to be depressed: One of the most unusual NIH awards ever given went to a 9-year-old boy.

Oct 24, 2005
Ted Agres

If you're struggling to win your first National Institutes of Health grant, here's another reason to be depressed: One of the most unusual NIH awards ever given went to a 9-year-old boy.

It was February 1957. Terence Boylan of Snyder, NY, near Buffalo, and his next-door neighbor, Bruce Cook, who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair, were backyard astronomy buffs who dreamed of building a rocket that could fly to the moon. The final hurdles in the nation's polio vaccination program had been overcome. There was great optimism that science, supported by a vibrant research grant system, had the potential to cure diseases and unlock nature's mysteries.

Boylan's father, John, was a physician and medical researcher at the University of Buffalo. Terence asked his father where government research money comes from. John Boylan, busy reading medical school applications, replied simply that it comes from NIH. So, on Feb. 9, 1957, Terence sent NIH his grant application:

Dear Sir,

My friend and I are very interested in space travel and have a great idea for a rocket ship. We were wondering if we could have a little sum of money ($10.00) to fulfill our project. We would [be] most grateful if you would send it to us.


Terence Boylan

Boylan's letter made its way to Ernest M. Allen, head of NIH's fledgling Division of Research Grants and one of the key architects of the agency's peer-review grants system. "Ernest Allen was a missionary for science," says Richard Mandel, a historian at NIH. "He had a genuine and simple kind of faith that the expansion of science would lead to the conquest of diseases. He had an enormous impulse to expand science." At a March 12, 1957, meeting of the National Health Advisory Council, Allen took time from a packed agenda to read aloud Boylan's request. The council members, struck by Boylen's youthful enthusiasm, passed the hat and collected $10.00.

Flush with funds, Boylan and Cook experimented with various rocket nozzle designs and propellants. Within months, they successfully launched a 4-foot rocket, with Boylan's pet white mouse in the nosecone, high in the air, until it disappeared from sight. The nosecone parachuted to safety and was recovered some 10 miles away, mouse passenger unscathed. "We were flabbergasted," Boylan says. "We simply lucked out."

Back at NIH, inspired by Boylan's rocket grant, if not by his experiment, Allen began thinking about training programs for undergraduates in medicine and health. Allen established a small pilot program for high school biology teachers to teach summer lab classes. Later, NIH established summer internship programs to bring high school, college, and graduate students to the Bethesda campus.

After the rocket experiments, Boylan spent several summers studying in his father's laboratory, at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Salisbury Cove, Maine, where the family vacationed. But in college, he decided to become a professional musician and toured with Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and the Eagles. "I'm not sure how good a scientist I would have been," Boylan says. "It takes a lot of discipline, and my inorganic chemistry was pretty terrible."

But Boylan maintains a fondness for medicine. He established the Boylan Foundation for International Medical Research, which brings students from Europe to the United States, and serves as trustee and chair of the board of MDIBL. "Luckily, since I got back into raising money for research, I'm working with doctors all the time," Boylan says. "The fascinating part of medicine is still there."