News Release

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Statement of Duane Alexander, M.D., Director, NICHD, NIH, On the Contributions of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in Advancing Research in Child Health, Human Development, and Intellectual Disability

The entire world owes a debt to Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her foresight in calling for an institute at the National Institutes of Health to study the myriad aspects of human development, both as it unfolds without problems and when medical and environmental factors prevent it from doing so.

In 1961, Mrs. Shriver persuaded her brother, then-President Kennedy, to include in his first health message to Congress the proposal for an NIH institute focusing on child health and human development research. After the bill that would establish the new institute was introduced, Mrs. Shriver testified in support of that bill and worked to persuade members of Congress to approve it. The institute that now bears her name, by act of Congress, is a tribute to her vision and commitment.

Research that the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has sponsored has led to the near-elimination in the developed world of once common causes of intellectual disability. For example, as recently as the 1980s, Haemophilus influenzae Type B (Hib) meningitis was the leading cause of acquired mental retardation in the United States. A vaccine against the disease, developed in the NICHD's laboratories, has been so effective that today the disease is nearly eliminated. Children with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, develop severe intellectual disability soon after birth. In the 1960s, a blood test for PKU was developed and children with the disorder were identified at birth. NICHD research documented that a diet low in the amino acid phenylalanine spared them from brain damage and allowed normal functioning. Another newborn blood test developed through NICHD research for a disorder caused by failure to produce sufficient amounts of thyroid hormone allowed diagnosis and treatment before any brain damage could occur. Other NICHD research documented the benefits and feasibility of mainstreaming children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities into schools and communities, a practice that is now routine.

She was also instrumental in creating in 1961 what eventually became the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (ACF/HHS), and served on that Committee from 1966-1968 and from 1977-1980.

We owe these and numerous other advances in health, especially for those with disabilities, to Mrs. Shriver's determined efforts. She will be greatly missed.

The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's Web site at

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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