The Geography of Immunology

History of Immunology in the Nation’s Capital

by John S. Emrich
November 2017, pages 40–41

IMMUNOLOGY 2017™ featured the American Association of Immunologists (AAI) Timeline along with a special exhibit chronicling major trends and milestones in the emergence of the Washington, DC, region as a major center of immunology research over the last century. The exhibit featured many of the institutions, members, and external forces that have helped shape the field in the nation’s capital.


At the beginning of the 20th century, immunology research institutions in the Washington, DC, area were overwhelmingly government laboratories, including the Walter Reed General Hospital, U.S. Army Medical School [now Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR)], and the U.S. Public Health Service Hygienic Laboratory—now the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Today the region is home to world-renowned public and private research institutions, an expanding biotechnology corridor, and a growing number of scientific societies, foundations, and other non-profits. The IMMUNOLOGY 2017™ exhibit explored the region’s immunology-related institutions through a brief history of the NIH, mapping of AAI member institutions, and a spotlight on the area’s biotech industry and diverse non-profit community.

AAI Annual Meetings

Washington, DC, has been home to the AAI annual meeting 10 times. The city was host to the second annual meeting, which took place on May 10, 1915, at the Willard Hotel, and featured a program of 19 original scientific papers. The recently completed IMMUNOLOGY 2017™ meeting stretched over five days at the Washington Convention Center and included over 125 scientific sessions and three days of poster presentations.

AAI Members

AAI welcomed its first Washington, DC, members in 1916, and witnessed membership growth throughout the metropolitan area over the next eight decades. The region has been a stronghold of AAI membership representing all career stages, from early-career trainees to established investigators and emeritus members.

The strength and diversity of clinical and basic research in the area led some AAI members to make the region home for their entire careers. Of those, four have been AAI members for 50 or more years: Samuel B. Formal (Walter Reed Army Medical Center and WRAIR), Joseph A. Bellanti (Georgetown University Medical Center), Rose G. Mage (NIH), and Abner Louis Notkins (NIH).

AAI members in the region have received some of the highest honors in the field. They include a Nobel Laureate—Baruj Benacerraf (NIAID)—and eight Lasker Award recipients— Anthony S. Fauci (NIAID), Jules Freund (NIAID), Maurice R. Hilleman (WRAIR), Michael Potter (NCI), John B. Robbins (NICHD, FDA, and NIH), Albert B. Sabin (FIC), Rachel Schneerson (NICHD, FDA, and NIH), and Joseph E. Smadel (WRAIR and NIH).

NIH Leadership

The history of AAI members serving as NIH institute and center directors dates from the late nineteenth-century. The eleven past directors have included three at the Hygienic Laboratory, the first director of the NIH, multiple directors of NIAID and NCI, and Ruth L. Kirschstein, who was the director of NIGMS and later the acting director of both the NIH and NCCIH.

Today, three current NIH directors are AAI members: Anthony S. Fauci (NIAID), Richard Hodes (NIA), and Stephen I. Katz (NIAMS).

External Forces

As the center of the nation’s government, Washington, DC, is also the hub of federal scientific funding and of social and political advocacy for research.

The most important piece of biomedical funding is the NIH budget, which received its first line item in the federal budget in 1938—$464,000. The dramatic increase in the NIH budget following World War II marked a time of rapid expansion in the number of institutions carrying out basic and clinical immunology research as well as in the growth in AAI membership in the area. Although the NIH budget continued to increase throughout the twentieth century, including the doubling (1998–2003), the past decade has seen a degree of uncertainty in the funding landscape never before experienced by researchers.

The city has been a focal point for many social movements. From Congressional hearings, to mailing of dimes to the White House for polio research to AIDS activism and creation of the iconic AIDS quilt to more recent rallies and protests supporting scientific funding and research, advocacy for research and patients has been a small but important movement that has taken place in the region.

For over 100 years, the greater Washington, DC, area has been a primary contributor to AAI and the immunology community. Today, it is home to an increasingly diverse array of public and private immunology-related research institutions and nonprofits, thousands of researchers, and leaders in the scientific community—not to mention the headquarters of AAI and many other scientific societies. As the focal point of federal biomedical research, funding, policy, and activism, the nation’s capital in 2017 offered AAI meeting attendees a vivid reminder of its unique and enduring relevance to our field and to the future of scientific advancement.

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