Lives of the fellows

James Augustine Shannon

b.1904 d. 20 May 1994
MD New York(1929) PhD(1935) FRCP(1969)

James Augustine Shannon (‘Jim’) was director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Maryland, USA from 1955 to 1968. He made major research contributions in the fields of kidney physiology, pharmacology and chemotherapy, and was an inspirational teacher.

Born in Queens, New York City, he was educated at St Augustine’s Academy and Brooklyn Prep and College, both in Brooklyn. He studied for his undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and then attended New York University (NYU) to study medicine, qualifying MD in 1929. After a residency at the Bellevue Hospital, he was awarded a PhD in physiology in 1935. At NYU he was on the faculty of the physiology department from 1931 to 1940 and, while there, he carried out important and innovative work on kidney physiology and clinical nephrology at a time when kidney function was only just beginning to be understood.

In 1941 he transferred to the department of medicine at NYU as assistant professor. The following year he was promoted to associate professor and put in charge of the new 100 bed NYU research service at the recently built Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island in New York. His plans to continue research into renal physiology were stymied by the outbreak of the Second World War. The Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia had cut the rest of the world off from the supply of quinine, until then the only available anti-malarial agent. The search for an effective replacement became a major national programme and most of the pilot clinical trials were carried out at Goldwater. Shannon also became responsible for co-ordinating nationwide research activities. The resulting drug, chloroquine, was to be the antimalarial drug of choice for several decades and enormously enhanced the operations of US military personnel in the malaria-infested areas of Southeast Asia. For his work on this project he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1948.

When the malaria project came to an end in 1946, he accepted the post of director of the Squibb Institute for Medical Research. Research here was linked to the commercial activities of a major pharmaceutical company and, during the three years he spent there, Shannon encouraged the development and marketing of streptomycin for the treatment of bacterial diseases.

In 1949 he became director of the newly formed National Heart Institute and built up an outstanding team of bright young physicians as clinical research associates. Three years later, he assumed responsibility for in-house research at all the institutes. It was during this time that he had to handle a major national crisis precipitated by the introduction of a new polio vaccine which apparently caused polio in its recipients. His experience at the Squibb Institute enabled him to make suggestions about the manufacturing process that solved the problem and his famous remark that ‘the only safe vaccine is a vaccine that is never used’ is still being quoted today.

His handling of the polio crisis and the competence and effectiveness with which he had managed research at Bethesda made him the obvious choice for the job when the director of the NIH retired. He was appointed director in 1955. In this role, he oversaw a speedy expansion of national biomedical research and used his influence to ensure that the institute’s budget increased by about 20% a year, thus becoming the world’s largest sponsor of biological and medical research. When he assumed the post the NIH had a staff of 6,300 and when he retired, 13 years later, the staff numbered 13,300. As director he also played a significant part in many national and international health initiatives.

He retired from the NIH in 1968, when he reached their statutory retirement age. Subsequent appointments included scholar in residence at the National Academy of Sciences from 1968 to 1970, professor of biomedical sciences at Rockefeller University from 1970 to 1976, and scholar in residence at the National Library of Medicine from 1976 to 1980.

Over a long career, he published more than 100 scientific papers, and many contributions to the literature on public policy and on the administration of research programmes. He also collected an impressive number of awards (including the public welfare medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1962) and honorary degrees and the central administration building at the NIH was named after him in 1983.

He married Alice M née Waterhouse in 1933. A medical practitioner, she had been his classmate at medical school. They had a daughter, Alice Shannon-Stolzberg who is also medically qualified and a son, J Anthony Shannon. His wife predeceased him in 1977 and, when he died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, he was survived by his children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The New York Times - accessed 18 march 2015; National Institutes of Health history - accessed 28 march 2015; National Academy of Sciences. Biographical memoirs - accessed 28 March 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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