What do the Nobel Prize, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” and discovery of the breast cancer gene BRCA1 have in common? Each plays a role in the history of NIEHS and can now be explored, along with other milestones, on an interactive timeline(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/anniversary/timeline/) created in recognition of the institute’s 50th anniversary this year.
Combing the collective memory
Scientists and staff at NIEHS spent hours combing through records, submissions, and personal memories to collect important milestones in scientific research and growth of the institute.
“We wanted to create a comprehensive record of the institute’s history and its many contributions to public health, which had never been done before,” said project leader Christine Flowers, director of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL).
“We’ve researched and documented nearly 100 significant milestones, beginning with the first report connecting the environment and human health, to our most recent advances in exposure analysis,” Flowers continued. “The timeline is a quick and powerful tool that reminds us of how far we’ve come.”
“Over the past fifty years, NIEHS has developed a rich heritage in environmental health research. But what is known of the early years has been tucked away in desk drawers or on individual computers, as well as lost when staff leave,” said team member Stephanie Holmgren, from the Office of Scientific Information Management. “This collection seeks to shake off the dust from those historic milestones and highlight the breadth and accomplishment of NIEHS research and initiatives.”
Multiple ways to explore
Joe Poccia, NIEHS digital design manager, guided the design of the tool. “We wanted a format that was attractive, but also easy to use and unobtrusive,” he said. “The milestones themselves — the people, stories, and the science — had to be the focus.”
The new resource may be used in several ways. You can explore chronologically, from the creation of the institute in the 1960s to the most recent events. Or you may select the decade or category that interests you.
- Development of programs, such as establishment of the National Toxicology Program (NTP).
- New findings in environmental health research, from the discovery in 1967 of links between asbestos and mesothelioma to the 2015 NTP report of clear evidence that a flame retardant caused cancer in rats and mice.
- Milestones connected with external events, such as NIEHS response to the Gulf oil spill.
- Key events in the history of the institution, starting with the call, in 1958, for a new agency to address health effects of environmental exposures.
“Once we had all of the milestones laid out on the timeline, I was amazed to see the broad range of projects and discoveries that NIEHS has been involved in over the years,” Poccia said.
“It is fascinating to see how the institute’s research, programs, and initiatives have evolved as methods, technologies, and health concerns have changed,” Holmgren added.
Those who attend the NIEHS Nov. 1 anniversary celebration may pick up a printed version of the timeline.