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History of the NIH Logo
By Victoria A. Harden
As we drive down the highway, we see a huge yellow neon "M" and immediately recognize the "golden arches," the internationally-known logo for McDonald's restaurants. Such types of visual identification have become pervasive, even in the Federal Government. The NIH has used three logos since 1969, but what do they mean? Why were these logos adopted?
Before 1969, NIH did not have a logo. Rather, NIH was viewed as the "laboratory arm" of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and NIH publications used the PHS seal or the logos of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (the predecessor to the Department of Health and Human Services). In 1965, however, the President's NIH Study Committee strongly urged increased NIH communications with the public. The development of an NIH logo was one of the first steps taken to implement that study. In 1969, George Mannina of the Office of Information worked with artist Charlie Shinn of the NIH Medical Arts and Photography Branch to develop the first NIH logo. The result was a triangle with rounded sides and the initials "NIH" in the center (above). The meanings of the three sides varied, with some seeing "research, treatment and education," and others the trilogy of "searching, serving, and teaching."
In 1976, work began on a new logo to update the triangle and develop a symbol that could be recognized all over the world. The first proposal was a concentric triangle with rounded vertices and straight sides, but NIH Director Dr. Donald Fredrickson wanted it altered to indicate NIH's relationship with grantees and other health institutions. By leaving the ends of the triangle open, the completed logo demonstrated NIH's "openness to the outside" as well as invoking "the glassware that is used in NIH laboratories."
The new logo could be used with or without the words "National Institutes of Health." Its component parts could be rendered in different colors, for example in silver, blue, and red to commemorate the American bicentennial in 1976.
NIH has had one additional logo, which was used during its 1986-1987 centennial observance. This logo was chosen in a contest in which "384 individuals submitted 1,354 highly creative entries," according to an NIH Record account. Sherry Meyers, a Clinical Center psychiatric nurse, won the $500 prize with a design that featured the number 100 with a microscope set in interlocked zeros and the words "National Institutes of Health, 1887-1987" surrounding the image).
As Ron Winterrowd of NIH's Medical Arts and Photography knows, "Logos are powerful. A good logo is an image on a sign that registers in your mind while you're driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour."
Special thanks to Marc Stern, Ron Winterrowd, and Clifford F. Johnson for their help in reconstructing this history.
For more information about the history of NIH, see the Office of NIH History website at https://history.nih.gov.
In 2012, the NIH logo was again updated to the one you see on the website today.
This page last reviewed on March 24, 2016