Beacon of Hope:  Founding Years
Founding Years 1944-1953
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Founding Years 1944-1953
Growth Years 1953-1969
Years of Change and Renewal 1969-1993
About the Author

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....

Rep. Frank B. Keefe, chair, House Appropriations Subcommittee, on the initial Clinical Center construction appropriation, January 16, 1948


he story of the Clinical Center has many beginnings. Although its origins trace back to a 1911 Public Health Service proposal for a research hospital,1 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 was complete.2 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 nation’s war on disease and disability.

Towering above the tree line "like the hull of a giant unfinished ship,”3 the 514-bed hospital became emblematic of the era’s 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 Collier’s 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.

Clinical Center Construction Workers

Construction work gang rolling caisson toward Clinical Center excavation site.
(Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.)
President Truman and Representatives

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.)


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