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NINDS at 50: an incomplete history celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  1. R B Daroff

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    By Lewis P Rowland. Published by Demos Medical Publishing, New York, 2003, pp 321, $44.95. ISBN 1-888799-71-4

    The epicentre of neurological research, which in the 1950’s was Cambridge, England, has since shifted to Bethesda, Maryland. If you want to know why, read this book about the history of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), from its origin in 1950 to the present. For those unfamiliar with the organisation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, the NINDS is the “neurological institute”, whose research activities overlap those of other institutes, including aging (NIA), vision (NEI), and mental health (NIMH).

    At the inception of its 50th anniversary, the NINDS director asked Lewis P (Bud) Rowland, who had retired as Chair of Neurology at Columbia, to write the NINDS’s history. The product is outstanding. It not only provides the hard facts, but an explanation of the behind the scenes activities that propelled and nurtured the institute’s growth.

    Rowland meticulously traces the evolution of the institute, which consists of extensive intramural and extramural programmes, the latter funding most of the neuroscience research in the United States. Biographies of the successive NINDS directors, the politicians, and prominent lay supporters who promoted its development, and its luminaries enliven the story. The latter bios are of the six Nobelists and five Lasker Award winners, most of who had worked in the intramural programme. Others trained in, or were greatly influenced by, the programme. A polymath with catholic neuroscience interests, Rowland provides lucid descriptions of the research that led to these awards.

    An added treat is a provocative timeline, listing the “landmark” neurological and neuroscience advances, throughout the world, every year, from 1950 to 2001. Rowland developed this by collating opinions of many awards committees and prominent neurologists and neuroscientists, most outside of the NINDS.

    The author, who took a sabbatical leave from Columbia to work full time in Bethesda on this project, mulled over the question of who would want to read his book. He concluded that some would immediately look at the index to see if they were listed, but hoped “that general readers will find the biographies illuminating and informative. I hope that others will find out how NINDS works, and what it has achieved. In all of this, I have tried to write in a way that is comprehensible to non scientists, but not offensive to scientists”. Rowland succeeded. Not only is it a history of the NINDS, but of neuroscience over the past 50 years.

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