An Enduring Accomplishment: The Founding of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

This article is the first in a three-part series on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  The series will cover the history of HHMI, the careers of some awardees at Johns Hopkins, and the nature and scope of the awards offered by HHMI.  Look for part two and three of the series in forthcoming issues of BCMB News.  This month, we bring you the storied history of the HHMI, and a glimpse of some of the people who have made this institute successful over the last 60 years.  

Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., in his day, was a man known for his sense of adventure and mystery.  A successful film producer and businessman, Hughes accomplished much throughout his lifetime.  Perhaps his most well-known and enduring accomplishment, the one most recognized in the current times, was the creation of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Howard Hughes. Image courtesy of the HHMI website.

Born in 1905 in Houston, TX, Hughes grew up with a family business run by his father, who  manufactured and leased drill bits through the Hughes Tool Company.  At the age of 19, Hughes inherited the Hughes Tool Company when his father passed away.  As both of his parents had succumbed to medical conditions for which adequate treatments had not been developed, Hughes recognized the importance of conducting medical research.  In his first will, drafted in 1925, he stated that he wished to create a medical research laboratory with his fortune.

Young Hughes moved to Los Angeles to try his had at making and directing films, and achieved success in this industry.  His film Two Arabian Knights (1928) won him the first-ever Academy Award for Best Director of a comedy picture.  While in Los Angeles, he led an active social life and dated many famous actresses of the time, including Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Ginger Rogers.  In 1932, he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company as a division of Hughes Tool Company.  It was through this avenue that he eventually met Verne R. Mason, M.D.  Mason oversaw Hughes’ recovery from a near-fatal crash of an XF-11 experimental photo reconnaissance airplane in 1946.  The two men became close, and Hughes and Mason discussed plans for a medical research institute.

They were joined in this endeavor by Alan Gregg, M.D., and Hugh Morgan, M.D.  Morgan recalls that Hughes “said he wanted to set up a Research Institute and operation in the field of medical sciences – he emphasized that he was interested in basic research, in probing into the genesis of life itself.  Of course, he would like to discover a new antibiotic that would cure thousands of people, but he knew that the basic sciences must be cultivated and he [was] willing to be patient in relation to the years from his efforts.  He [felt] that properly supported research [would] produce big dividends even though they [might] not be spectacular.”

In 1951, Hughes personally funded six physician-scientists and appointed them as Howard Hughes Medical Research Fellows.  Two years later, he chartered the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Delaware.  The charter stated that “the primary purpose and objective of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute shall be the promotion of human knowledge within the field of the basic sciences (principally the field of medical research and medical education) and the effective application thereof for the benefit of mankind.”  The HHMI’s funding of research remained modest, but steady, up until the time of Hughes’ death in 1976.  In 1978, the reported available funds reached $15 million, and the staff grew to include 140 scientists.  In the 1980s, the HHMI experienced its most rapid period of growth under the guidance of HHMI President George Thorn, M.D.  It was decided that the research efforts would be concentrated in four areas:  genetics, immunology, metabolic regulation (later re-named cell biology), and neuroscience.

The inaugural members of the HHMI board of trustees. Image courtesy of the the HHMI website.

In 1985, the HHMI board of trustees decided to sell the Hughes Aircraft Company (the major source of funding for the HHMI) to General Motors Corporation.  This established the endowment around $5 billion.  HHMI moved its headquarters from Florida to Maryland, and expanded its research to include a program in structural biology.  An Affiliated Investigator program was launched in 1987, allowing HHMI to “support the best scientists where we find them.”  One year later, another new program created funding opportunities for Predoctoral Fellowships, awarding sixty candidates in the first year.  To cap off the incredible success of the decade, in 1989 HHMI investigator Thomas Cech shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering that RNA can act as an enzyme.

The Janelia Farm Research Campus. Image courtesy of the HHMI website.

HHMI continues to grow and contribute to scientific research and education.  The institute is now comprised of approximately 330 investigators, and supports much more than research in individual laboratories.  From the donation of $1 million towards the Human Genome Organization (in 1990), to the establishment of the Janelia Farms Research Campus, HHMI contributes to large-scale efforts.  They also give special funding to collaborative efforts that are “new and so large in scope that they require a team covering a range of fields.” They give grants for undergraduate and graduate science education, innovative plant scientists, and an international Tuberculosis/HIV effort based in South Africa (K-RITH).  With an endowment now of $16.1 billion, it is the second-wealthiest philanthropic organization in the United States, and the second-best endowed medical research organization in the world.  It is hard to believe that all of this started with a 19-year-old man, and his wish for better medical research.  Howard Hughes will certainly be remembered for his contributions to the film and aeronautics industries, however, the creation of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will be his most enduring accomplishment.

For more information on the history of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, please visit their website.  You may also find a quick fact-sheet on HHMI here.

-Diedre Ribbens

3 thoughts on “An Enduring Accomplishment: The Founding of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

  1. Pingback: HHMI At Hopkins: First-Hand Faculty Experiences | BCMB News

  2. Pingback: Following Their Footsteps: Hopkins HHMI faculty give advice for young investigators | BCMB News

  3. Pingback: November Issue | BCMB News

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