This Committee unanimously,
on both sides, without regard to party or politics or anything else,
is supremely interested in this matter of providing proper clinical
research facilities that will bring the sufferer, the human patient,
into direct contact with the researchers. The time has come to recognize
that we must provide trained people clinicians and technicians
and researchers and at the same time giving to suffering
humanity that has these diseases the opportunity to be studied....
Frank B. Keefe, chair, House Appropriations Subcommittee,
on the initial Clinical Center construction appropriation,
January 16, 1948
story of the Clinical Center has many beginnings. Although its origins
trace back to a 1911 Public Health Service proposal for a research
the Clinical Center is actually a product of the
dynamic growth in American biomedicine following the end of World
War II. The postwar years saw unprecedented growth and change at
the National Institutes of Health. Between 1945 and 1953, the reservation
grew by 214 acres. From the fields and woodlots surrounding the
original Georgian-style campus rose 14 new buildings, the last of
which was the mammoth Clinical Center. This construction cycle tripled
NIH laboratory and office space and swelled the work force from
2,245 to 7,145 by 1958, when the initial Clinical Center staffing
What was once a small in-house federal laboratory was thereby transformed
into a world-class biomedical research establishment and the focal
point of the nations war on disease and disability.
Towering above the tree line "like the hull of a giant unfinished
the 514-bed hospital became emblematic of the eras extravagant
hopes for the conquest of chronic diseases and its persistent insecurities
about the threat of atomic destruction. "A 90-year life expectancy
is possible within half a century," predicted Colliers
magazine as the Clinical Center prepared to open in August 1952.
A new era in scientific medicine was dawning in which basic science
would reveal the causes of disease and clinicians would develop
curative therapies. NIH was embarking on an epochal task, the magazine
reported, to put medicine back together again.4
By bringing together physicians, biochemists, nutritionists, and
pathologists, and by fostering emergent technologies such as chemical
pharmacology and radiation diagnostics and therapy, the Clinical
Center would be the stage for a new synthesis of medical knowledge,
which would radically improve the prospects of human health.
Construction work gang rolling caisson toward
Clinical Center excavation site.
(Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.)
President Truman at the cornerstone ceremony, June 22, 1951.
Behind him are (l. to r.) NIH Director William H. Sebrell, FSA
Administrator Oscar R. Ewing, primary contractor John McShain,
and Surgeon General Leonard A. Scheele.
(Courtesy of Sam Silverman.)