A pioneer of the modern clinical diagnostics industry, Jack Whitehead spent most of his adult life in medically related research and development. He was convinced that long-term progress in the battle against human disease would depend on greater understanding of basic life processes. How could we conquer cancer unless we understood the most intimate details of normal cell growth? How could we repair damaged nerve cells—in Alzheimer's disease or traumatic injury—without precise information about the complex signals regulating nerve cell development?
Whitehead dreamed of creating an ideal environment for the best young minds in biomedical science. The ideal setting, he believed, would be a small, self-governed research center, affiliated with a leading research university. Such a center would encourage collaboration among young scientists without the constraints inherent in a large teaching institution. New ideas would come to fruition more rapidly because of the shared mission: The pursuit of excellence in biomedical research.
Through the 1970s, Whitehead discussed his plan with university presidents, scientists, and government leaders across the country. It soon became clear that realization of this dream would be more difficult than expected. People were wary of the innovative structure of the proposed institute, and several universities turned down the opportunity for affiliation. However, in 1980, Whitehead took his plans to Nobel laureate David Baltimore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Baltimore wrote, "Late in the summer of 1980, Jack came to me with his vision and because it fit well with the beliefs I held about the optimum environment for basic research, I agreed to try to work out an appropriate setting for the institute."
Over the next 18 months, the two worked feverishly with Baltimore's scientific colleagues and MIT administrators, establishing the foundation for Whitehead Institute.