Seventy-five Years of Discovery
Perhaps the most famous photo of Robert Yerkes, the Yale psychobiologist who founded Yale Laboratories for Primate Biology in 1930, was taken of him holding two young chimpanzees outside at the center’s original location in Orange Park, Florida. Today, of course, it would be highly unusual to see a researcher holding a primate; federal regulations, institutional guidelines, and plain field wisdom restrict such contact between human and subject. But the attentive, caring interaction with—and observation of—our closest evolutionary cousins demonstrated by Yerkes in the photo still lies at the heart of what is now Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, which celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary this year.
Yerkes’ Living Links Center has enabled scientists such as Frans de Waal to study primates up close and over time, yielding valuable conclusions about primate behavior. Recent studies have shown that monkeys may have a sense of fairness and reciprocity; that they recognize themselves in a mirror; and that they likely feel empathy, all qualities previously attributed to humans alone.
But Yerkes is also a multidisciplinary research institute poised to make landmark discoveries in the fields of neuroscience, microbiology and immunology, psychobiology, and visual science. One of the center’s primary goals, working with the Emory Vaccine Center, is to develop an AIDS vaccine to combat the global epidemic now affecting more than 42 million people. Other significant research programs are seeking ways to treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through technical imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; unlock the secrets of memory; address vision disorders; and advance knowledge about the links between biology and behavior, such as the effects of sex hormones.
Yerkes houses about 1,300 nonhuman primates at its main center on the Emory campus, and another 2,300 at the Yerkes Field Station in Lawrenceville. In addition, the center has some five thousand rodents—primarily mice—at any given time in its research vivarium. Animal care is a topmost priority at Yerkes, which follows the regulations and guidelines established by NIH, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Emory’s own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
“I am proud of the support we have received from the University’s administration throughout our history,” says Yerkes Director Stuart Zola. “I can think of no better place to be for a convergence of support, talent, and discovery than the Yerkes Research Center. I look forward to what’s to come.”
1930: Yale psychobiologist Robert Yerkes founded the Yale Anthropoid Experiment Station, later known as the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology, in Orange Park, Florida.
1941: Yerkes retired, and the center was renamed in his honor.
1956: Emory took over the Yerkes Center after Yerkes died and administrators at Yale decided the Orange Park facility was too far removed from the university to facilitate collaborative research.
1960: Congress enacted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Regional Primate Research Center Program to provide the scientific community with specialized resources needed for primate research.
1961: Along with six other centers, Yerkes received the title of Regional Primate Research Center. The centers were charged with providing excellent animal care and serving as resources for scientific research involving nonhuman primates.
1965: Emory moved the center to Atlanta, after NIH funding enabled the University to acquire land and construct housing facilities for the primates on its main campus and at its field station near Lawrenceville, Georgia.
1988: Yerkes provided a much-needed boost to the Atlanta Zoo, which at the time was struggling to recover from the loss of its national accreditation due to poor animal treatment. When Yerkes offered to donate three gorilla families to join the zoo’s lone gorilla, Willie B., the zoo was able to secure funding for a 1.5-acre outdoor gorilla habitat—an exhibit that brought viewers in droves and saved the floundering zoo from extinction. The move eventually resulted in Willie B., who previously sat alone in a concrete enclosure, fostering a family. Yerkes also donated nine orangutans.
1999: The Yerkes facility was expanded to accommodate the newly established Emory Vaccine Center, which facilitates vaccine development and research in AIDS, malaria, anthrax, hepatitis C, and other diseases. This same year, the Yerkes Research Center became the first home for the newly formed Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN), which provides resources to foster innovative research on the basic neurobiology of complex social behaviors associated with fear, aggression, affiliation, and reproduction.
2001: The DNA vaccine developed by microbiologist Harriet Robinson was shown to prevent development of AIDS in rhesus monkeys infected with a highly virulent form of HIV. Today, this vaccine is in clinical trials in humans. This same year, memory expert Stuart Zola came to Emory from the University of California in San Diego to become director of the Yerkes Research Center.
2002: The NIH designated Yerkes Research Center and seven other centers as national primate research centers in recognition of their involvement with and impact on research programs throughout the country and the world.
2003: The Yerkes Research Center becomes a critical component of the Southeastern Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense, a federally funded initiative to help develop new vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tests against emerging infections and to defend against organisms that might be used in bioterrorist attacks.
2004: The Yerkes Research Center opened a new 92,000-square-foot neuroscience research building with state-of-the-art lab and imaging facilities currently used by scientists throughout the University.
2005-06: Yerkes celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary.