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A Brief History of
the Regional Primate Research Centers

W. Richard Dukelow and Leo A. Whitehair. Comparative Pathology Bulletin 27(3): 1-2, 1995.

The first major primate facility in the United States was established in 1928 by Professor Robert M. Yerkes at Yale University. This unit was devoted almost exclusively to behavioral observations and was later moved to the warmer climes of Orange Park, Florida.

In the spring of 1940, Dr. James Watt visited Puerto Rico to investigate an outbreak of Shigella in a large colony of rhesus monkeys held on an island named Cayo Santiago. In 1956, then director of the National Heart Institute, Watt visited the world-renowned U.S.S.R. Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy at Sukhumi. From these experiences Watt recognized the importance of large, government-supported primate research facilities to aid in cardiovascular studies. Under his guidance, efforts began to develop a primate research facility in the United States.

Within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a planning committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dr. George Burch of Tulane University and met on September 25, 1957, in Washington, D.C. Immediately, heated discussions arose on whether other biomedical disciplines (besides cardiovascular) should be included and whether the development should be of a single "primate center" or of several "regional" primate centers.

The committee was large, but among its members were Drs. Leon H. Schmidt (Cincinnati), Harry F. Harlow (Madison), and Theodore C. Ruch (Seattle). It is significant that these three individuals would eventually become the first directors of three of the seven regional primate research centers.

In consultation with several influential politicians, primarily Senator Lister Hill and Congressman Ralph Fogarty, it was believed that the establishment of the centers program would have a better chance of funding if a regional approach was adopted. In 1960, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed to appropriate $2 million to the NIH to establish two primate centers. Over the next five years, appropriations were added to allow the construction of six regional centers and a"National Conditioning Center." The latter center's mission was to carry out research on husbandry, transportation, and management of various species of nonhuman primates.

Thirteen locations were initially considered for the centers. Eventually, nine applications were received and six of these were approved and arranged in priority. These were exciting times for all the individuals and committees involved. Today there are many "centers" of various biomedical disciplines, but at that time the NIH had never established a biomedical research "center program." In later years the regional primate research centers program would serve as a model for NIH and other federal center programs.

It was originally planned that the first regional primate research center was to be in Seattle and the second center was to be in Oregon. However, through some committee maneuvering, this order was reversed and the first center was dedicated in Beaverton, Oregon, on May 6, 1962 under the direction of Dr. Donald E. Pickering. Pickering established the administrative structure of the center and began construction. He stepped down in 1963 and was replaced by Dr. William Montagna of Brown University who was to serve as director for the next 19 years.

In 1963, the center at Seattle was dedicated and in subsequent years centers were established in Madison, WI (host institution: University of Wisconsin); Southborough, MA (host institution: Harvard University), Atlanta, GA (host institution: Emory University); Covington, LA (host institution: Tulane University); and Davis, CA (host institution: University of California-Davis). The Atlanta center was named after Robert M. Yerkes and the Covington center was initially called the Delta Regional Primate Research Center, later changed to the Tulane Regional Primate Research Center. The Davis center was initially considered the national center and was called the National Primate Conditioning Center. Several years later, however, its name was changed to the National Center for Primate Biology and, still later, the center's status was changed from national to regional and it was renamed the California Regional Primate Research Center.

Two centers have well-established field stations, namely those of the Yerkes center that is located near Lawrenceville, Georgia, and of the Washington center that is located at Medical Lake, Washington, near Spokane. The Wisconsin and Yerkes centers have established collaborative working relationships with zoos. With completion of construction at the Davis center, all seven centers were firmly in place and beginning to make many valuable contributions to biomedical research.

It has now been nearly 35 years since the first regional primate research center was established. Twenty-three men and women have served as primate center directors to date, the longest of these for over 23 years. The original designations of assigned missions have faded and intense research programs have been established in many biomedical areas. Probably the most impressive role of the centers was demonstrated in the early 1980s when the AIDS epidemic became the scourge of the world. The regional primate research centers rose to the occasion quickly by their altering research objectives to study and develop the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) macaque model for AIDS, the standard and best animal model available for basic research on this disease. Other major biomedical research related to human health is underway in various areas, including cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, infectious disease, vision, aging, and diseases affecting women's health. In addition, the United States primate research centers network has served as a model for primate research facilities in other countries throughout the world.

The seven centers currently have a total of 18,300 nonhuman primates of 32 species. Research, both basic and applied, is carried out by over 1,200 scientists at these centers. These include not only the core staff scientists at each center, but also scientists from other institutions in the United States and throughout the world who come to the centers to conduct their research or carry out collaborative projects. These collaborative projects are arranged by contacting the respective center director and receiving approval by appropriate committees at each center.

The regional primate research centers have strong obligations, not only to research with nonhuman primates, but also to the conservation of nonhuman primates in their native habitats. Accordingly, field studies and conservation research is also carried out by the centers.

For further information on the Regional Primate Research Centers Program, readers are encouraged to contact Dr. Leo A. Whitehair, Director, Comparative Medicine, National Center for Research Resources, NIH, One Rockledge Centre, 6705 Rockledge Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892. (301) 435-0744, FAX (301) 480-3819.