A Wide-Ranging Resource

In the late 1950s, when workers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were outlining plans for what would become the National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), there were many options for how they could be operated. Among the questions: would the centers specialize in one particular health area, such as heart disease, or have a broader mandate? The latter perspective won the day. (1)

It was a fortuitous decision. In the over half-century since the centers became a reality, findings made at NPRCs have advanced the prevention and treatment of an almost unlimited number of ailments. But their value and impact extends well beyond that.

One of the reasons is that nonhuman primates, belonging to the same mammalian order as humans, are of particular interest to researchers from many disciplines, including medicine, genetics, zoology, physiology, psychology, ecology, comparative anatomy, and anthropology. And scientists from all of these areas, and others besides, conduct work at NPRCs. It is fair to say that few people who have studied primates for any length of time, whether in laboratory or field, have not at one time or another consulted research performed at one or more of these centers. (2)

Knowledge of primate biology in its broadest sense is vital to the NPRCs. Topics such as reproduction, disease, and psychological well-being are important to managing primate colonies, and there has been a historic focus on these topics at all of the national primate centers. (3) Any finding from a nonhuman primate can, of course, have a human health benefit. But there are also benefits for nonhuman primates themselves. (4)

Examples are myriad. Techniques of gamete collection, in vitro fertilization, and embryo storage and transfer pioneered at the Oregon NPRC have become integral tools for the preservation of threatened species. (5) Workers from the Washington NPRC have outlined methods in which disease risk analysis can be used to protect nonhuman primate populations in danger of extinction. (6) And what is now Southwest NPRC was involved in the isolation of the virus implicated in Callitrichid hepatitis, a frequently fatal infection that had diminished zoo populations of the endangered golden lion tamarin. Today, members of this rare species can be screened to prevent such losses, and such work has been extended to other primates. (7)

The best way to appreciate something is to learn about it, and educate others who can then share that appreciation. This has been the very hallmark of the national primate centers. The NPRCs are a precious global resource. As in the past, they will continue to serve for the betterment of primates—whether human or otherwise.


Dukelow WR. 1995. The Alpha Males: An Early History of the Regional Primate Research Centers. Lanham: University Press of America.

King FA, Yarbrough CJ, Anderson DC, Gordon TP, and Gould KG. 1988. Primates. Science 240:1475-1482.

Lanford RE, Chavez D, Brasky KM, Burns RB, and Rico-Hesse R. 1998. Isolation of a hepadnavirus from the woolly monkey, a New World primate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95:5757-5761.

Pukazhenthi B, Comizzoli P, Travis AJ, and Wildt DE. 2006. Applications of emerging technologies to the study and conservation of threatened and endangered species. Reproduction, Fertility and Development 18:77-90.

Romski MA, and Sevcik RA. 1998. Breaking the Speech Barrier: Language Development Through Augmented Means. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company.

Rumbaugh DM, editor. 1977. Language Learning by a Chimpanzee: The LANA Project. New York: Academic Press.

Stephensen CB, Jacob JR, Montali RJ, Holmes KV, Muchmore E, Compans RW, Arms ED, Buchmeier MJ, and Lanford RE. 1991. Isolation of an arenavirus from a marmoset with callitrichid hepatitis and its serologic association with disease. Journal of Virology 65:3995-4000.

Tardif S, Carville A, Elmore D, Williams LE, and Rice K. 2012. Reproduction and breeding of nonhuman primates. In: Abee CR, Mansfield K, Tardif S, and Morris T, editors. Nonhuman Primates in Biomedical Research (Second Edition). London: Elsevier. pp 197-249.

Travis DA, Hungerford L, Engel GA, and Jones‐Engel L. 2006. Disease risk analysis: a tool for primate conservation planning and decision making. American Journal of Primatology 68:855-867.

Wolf DP, Thomson JA, Zelinski‐Wooten MB, and Stouffer RL. 1990. In vitro fertilization‐embryo transfer in nonhuman primates: The technique and its applications. Molecular Reproduction and Development 27:261-280.

Yaeger JF. 1968. Regional Primate Research Centers: The Creation of a Program. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Public Health Services, NIH.


1. Yaeger 1968; Dukelow 1995. Another discussion concerned whether to have a single national primate center—somewhat analogous to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts—or a number of regional centers. The regional approach was taken, again to good results, for reasons of both accessibility and scientific productivity. Note that, for simplicity, the institutions are here referred to as NPRCs, although in the past were referred to as Regional Centers; one, Southwest, although long supported by NIH, became an official NPRC in 1999.

2. The NPRCs’ dedication to dissemination of primate information is exemplified by the PrimateLit database, a bibliographic resource operated by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the Washington National Primate Research Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. It serves as an exhaustive guide to the primate literature up to 2010.

3. Tardif et al. 2012

4. King et al. 1988. Many NPRC projects yield human health benefits, but the full range of benefits are not always fully anticipated. For example, a project conducted at Yerkes NPRC on symbol acquisition in nonhuman primates led to novel methods for improving the communication abilities of developmentally delayed children. See Rumbaugh 1977; Romski and Sevcik 1998

5. Wolf et al. 1990; Pukazhenthi et al. 2006

6. Travis et al. 2006

7. Stephensen et al. 1991; Lanford et al. 1998