NIH's history keeper retires

To intramural scientists at the US National Institutes of Health whose endgame is being published, scrawled notations, E-mail exchanges and antiquated lab instruments are the flotsam and jetsam of research. But to Victoria A. Harden, founder of the Office of NIH History, these materials are gold. "The American people were putting billions of dollars into the NIH and they were getting a tremendous product for the money, and nobody knew about it," says the 62-year-old Ha

Mar 1, 2006
Karen Pallarito

To intramural scientists at the US National Institutes of Health whose endgame is being published, scrawled notations, E-mail exchanges and antiquated lab instruments are the flotsam and jetsam of research. But to Victoria A. Harden, founder of the Office of NIH History, these materials are gold. "The American people were putting billions of dollars into the NIH and they were getting a tremendous product for the money, and nobody knew about it," says the 62-year-old Harden, who retired on January 31 after 20 years as the agency's chief historian.

The Marietta, Ga., native had two children and taught part-time before pursuing her PhD in American history, never imagining she would work for the federal government. But while studying at Emory University, Harden stumbled upon some papers by a Georgia chemist who lobbied in the late 1920s for the establishment of the National Institute (singular) of Health. It was a pivotal event in the formation of today's NIH, which began in 1887 as a one-room laboratory. Tracing that history became the focus of her dissertation and, eventually, a book - Inventing the NIH: Federal Biomedical Research Policy, 1887-1937.

In 1984, the NIH hired Harden as a temporary civil servant to write a book on the history of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. "That's what really hooked me on the intellectual history of science: How do scientists do their work," she says, "as opposed to my first book, which was [about] how do you get a bill through Congress to support science."

In the course of her research, she met DeWitt Stetten, Jr., a biochemist, educator, and former NIH deputy director for science who was instrumental in persuading senior administrators to start a museum to preserve NIH history. In 1986, the NIH hired her to establish the museum, later named for Stetten, and to launch the NIH Office of History.

From day one, the stories behind the science captivated her. The virus that causes AIDS had been identified just two years earlier, and NIH was a beehive of research activity. "It seemed to me I would be derelict as a historian if I didn't try to capture this," she says. And so was born the AIDS history project (http://history.nih.gov/?NIHInOwnWords), a Web site that compiles interviews Harden has conducted over the past two decades with scientists at the NIH recalling their early years of research into the deadly disease. She hopes in retirement to expand this work and publish a book.

Over the years, the Web site's offerings have blossomed, providing a magnificent vehicle for reaching millions. Researchers and the general public may explore a chronology of major events in NIH history, access transcripts of oral histories with NIH scientists, and view more than a dozen online exhibits, including the story of Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg, known for "breaking the genetic code."

Hundreds of instruments and curiosities have been collected over the years, a portion of which have been displayed from time to time within the corridors of NIH. It's Harden's dream that some day the full collection, which includes a Rube Goldberg-like amino acid analyzer cobbled together in the lab, will garner its own physical space.

The search for Harden's successor is on hold owing to a hiring freeze. In the interim, Alan Schechter, chief of the Molecular Medicine Branch of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, carries on her legacy, along with a "remarkable" staff of historians and fellows. Going forward, Harden expects to pursue her passion for the history of medical research, perhaps as a consultant, but first she's taking some time to relax and travel with her husband. "I told everybody I need to vegetate for a while."