INTRODUCTION: Federal History and National History Day

Why is it important to study our government’s history? Just compare these two photographs of Washington, DC (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration). The top one was taken in 1916, the bottom one, of the same area, in 1996. Eighty years makes an amazing difference, doesn't it? The profusion of government museums lining the National Mall and of federal office buildings to either side dramatizes the growth of the federal government itself during the 20th century. 

In his Inaugural Address in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the mystic chords of memory” that bind us to the past and inspire us to build on it. Over the years the federal government has evolved a fascinating array of departments and offices—from the powerful Department of Defense and the wide-ranging Department of Health and Human Services, to the tiny International Boundary and Water Commission, with the difficult job of defining the crucial border between the United States and Mexico along the constantly shifting Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers.

The Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG) is proud to present this Resource Page for National History Day 2019 and its theme "Triumph and Tragedy." Twelve selected federal government agencies have provided entries with stimulating historical topics related to their histories. Our page also points toward fascinating federal resources from those agencies that you can use in researching your projects.

As you think about the past in relation to the present, you might evaluate the degree of progress government has made, or not made, toward solving national problems. In sync with this year’s NHD theme, you will be producing narratives of governmental Triumph or Tragedy, or perhaps a little of both. In the agency sections below, we hope you find inspiration for some wonderful, dramatic, and informative projects.

How to Use This Resource Page

Each entry provides a brief introduction about the agency and its history. There are also links to the agency's home page and its history page. Be sure to check out the colorful seals and images that the agencies have allowed us to use. We encourage you to read each introduction and explore the links in depth. If you find an agency’s story particularly compelling, look over the list of suggested topics. See if that leads you to a specific project. You aren’t confined to the listed topics, though. The sky and your imagination are the only limits.

Next, look over the resources section. Some of the suggested resources apply specifically to the listed topics. Others are more general and could be used for a wide range of topics. Explore them as much as you wish to get an idea of the possibilities. Once you have selected your project and the format, you are ready to do some serious research.

Special Request: Please do not contact agency historians or their offices. They would love to talk to you if they had time, but there are thousands of NHD students and only a few staff in each office. They need to focus on documenting the history of their agency and creating new knowledge for all.

History at the Federal Government Website: You don’t need to restrict yourself to the agencies listed below. In March 2018 SHFG inaugurated this website, History@fedgov for short, which provides links to over 260 federal offices that have a history page or that provide extensive historical resources. Take a few moments to dig into this fascinating resource and enjoy a voyage of exploration.


The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), established in 1923, is an agency within the executive branch of the federal government. ABMC—guardian of America’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and memorials—honors the service, achievements and sacrifice of the United States Armed Forces.

In support of this mission, ABMC administers, operates and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 29 federal memorials, monuments, and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar. Three of the memorials are located within the United States. Most of these cemeteries and memorials commemorate Americans who served in World War I or World War II.

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1.  The United States Armed Forces in World War I.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917, and played a critical role in the Allied victory. Over 116,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict.

2.  The United States Armed Forces in World War II.

The United States again went to war in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Americans fought in two theaters: the Atlantic and the Pacific.  With its major Allies the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, the United States defeated the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy.

3.  The Normandy Campaign of World War II.

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada launched an airborne and amphibious assault on Normandy, France. In the face of furious German resistance, the Allies were able to secure a beachhead.  Over the subsequent days and weeks, the Allies advanced through the Norman countryside, until the French capital, Paris, was liberated on August 25.

4.  ABMC and the American Commemoration of World War I and World War II.

After World War I, Congress established ABMC, in recognition of the need for a federal agency to be responsible for commemorating American armed forces where they had served overseas and for the purpose of controlling military cemeteries, monuments, and markers on foreign soil. The mission of ABMC expanded after World War II, to develop, operate, and maintain overseas cemeteries which honor the dead from that conflict.


The U.S. Department of Labor was created as a Cabinet-level agency in 1913. Its mission under the Organic Act is “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” It serves both union members and unorganized workers equally. Initially the Department existed mainly as the nation’s  immigration agency, labor dispute mediator, and collector of labor and economic statistics. The mission has greatly expanded in the 105 years since. While it lost the immigration and mediation functions in the 1940s, major responsibilities were added by Congress in employment training, equal opportunity, workplace safety and health, minimum wage enforcement, and unemployment insurance, among others. Today it enforces 180 federal laws protecting 125,000,000 employees in over 10 million workplaces.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1. Department of Labor and African Americans: Publications and Policies.

2. Government and Workers’ Safety and Health.

3. What role did Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the Nation's first woman Cabinet member, play in the New Deal?

See also: numerous books about Perkins.

4. What is the importance of Labor Day and how did it come about?

See also hardcopy: Jonathan Grossman, “Who Is the Father of Labor Day?,” Monthly Labor Review, Sept. 1972.

5. There was a recent NPR radio segment on the A-TEAM program of 1965. What was it, and why was it important?
Contact Wirtz Labor Library:


The mission of the U.S. Department of State is to lead America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance by advancing the interests of the American people, their safety, and economic prosperity. Its rich and complex history mirrors the nation’s development and the evolution of its place in the world.

Home Page URL:

Two offices within the Department of State have historical resources that would be useful for National History Day projects: the Office of the Historian and the Diplomacy Center. Students are welcome to explore these resources fully. Then look below to find a list of general topics and some State Department resources that relate specifically to them.

1. Office of the Historian.

The Office of the Historian is staffed by professional historians who are experts in the history of U.S. foreign policy and the Department of State. They work closely with other federal government history offices, the academic historical community, and specialists across the globe.

Office of the Historian:

The Office of the Historian is responsible, under law, for the preparation and publication of the official documentary history of U.S. foreign policy in the Foreign Relations of the United States series (FRUS). The FRUS series provides a wealth of primary source documents on a wide range of topics related to U.S. foreign policy and decision making, dating back to 1861. Since the end of WWII, FRUS is organized by Presidential Administration.

The series is date and topic searchable. You can search specific historical actors like JFK and topics like the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis, or learn about U.S. relations with a foreign country during a specific time period. The FRUS series presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions. The series began in 1861 and now comprises more than 480 individual volumes.

Foreign Relations volumes contain documents from the Presidential libraries, Departments of State and Defense, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Agency for International Development, and other foreign affairs agencies, as well as the private papers of individuals involved in implementing U.S. foreign policy.

2. Diplomacy Center.

The U. S. Diplomacy Center is a museum and educational center within the State Department. It was created as a joint public-private venture of the Diplomacy Center Foundation and the Department. Currently under construction, it will be the first museum in the nation dedicated to telling the stories of American diplomacy and American diplomats. It also includes the currently available webpage Discover Diplomacy, which explores the questions of what is diplomacy and how does it affect the American public. Students can use the site to gain a basic understanding of the Department of State through its diplomatic missions around the world and the diplomats who represent American interests.

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources: 

1. Cuban Missile Crisis.

2. The Vietnam War.

3. Nuclear Arms Control.

4. World War II Conferences.


The Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation, was founded on May 20, 1926, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act of 1926 into law. The act instructed the Secretary of Commerce to foster air commerce; designate and establish airways; establish, operate, and maintain aids to air navigation (not including airports); arrange for research and development to improve such aids; license pilots; issue airworthiness certificates for aircraft and major aircraft components; and investigate accidents. The Department of Commerce established the Aeronautics Branch to undertake the aviation mission.

In subsequent reorganizations, the Aeronautics Branch became the Bureau of Air Commerce (1934); the Civil Aeronautics Authority (1938); the Civil Aeronautics Administration (1940); the Federal Aviation Agency (1958); and the Federal Aviation Administration (1967).

Thanks to the work of FAA and its predecessor agencies, aviation has become central to the way we live and do business, linking people from coast to coast and connecting America to the world. In fact, FAA has created the safest, most reliable, most efficient, and most productive air transportation system in the world.

Under the broad umbrella of safety and efficiency, FAA has several major roles:

    • Regulating civil aviation to promote safety.
    • Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.
    • Developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft.
    • Researching and developing the national aerospace system and civil aeronautics.
    • Developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation.
    • Regulating U.S. commercial space transportation.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics:

1. The first women controllers.

2. Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

3. Origins of the commercial space industry.

4. The Civil Aeronautics Administration during World War II.

5. FAA Administrator Alexander Butterfield and Watergate.

Selected Online Agency Historical Resources:

FAA Historical Chronology 1926-1996 -
FAA Historical Chronology 1997-2017 -
The Federal Aviation Administration: A Historical Perspective, 1903-2008
FAA Historical Publications in Print -
FAA Milestones and Events -
They Helped Make FAA What It Is -
Historical Aviation Photos -
Timeline of FAA and Aerospace History -


The Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, traces its history back to the appointment of the first chemist in the Department of Agriculture in 1862. It was officially established in 1906 as a consumer protection agency.

Today the FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products, and medical devices. The FDA is also responsible for the safety and security of most of our nation’s food supply, all cosmetics, dietary supplements, and products that give off radiation, as well as for the regulation of tobacco products.

The activities of the FDA affect every citizen, and the products the agency regulates account for about one-fifth of every consumer dollar spent.  These responsibilities accumulated over the 20th and into the 21st centuries. How and why this happened can be explored on the website of the FDA

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey and taking a stand for the public health.

 “Autobiographical Reflections” by Frances Oldham Kelsey, a compilation of her life and work in Frances Kelsey’s voice, drawn for oral histories and speeches:

“50 Years:  The Kefauver-Harris Amendments,” A collection of sources, including story boards, speeches, a video, and a podcast, on the law—passed in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy—that changed the face of drug regulation:

2.  Harvey Wiley and the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act.

A sample of agency graphic information on Wiley (and many other subjects) on its flickr photostream

An overview of passage of the law:

3.  Women in STEM and their contributions to the Food and Drug Administration since 1900.

 “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” ten case studies of women from the laboratory, field inspection force, review staff, and policy development who helped shape and carry out the mission of the FDA, from the 20th to the 21st centuries:

“Voices of Innovation: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,”  additional case studies, including audio snippets from oral histories, of women at FDA and their role in the AIDS crisis, orphan product development, social psychology, consumer education, and other areas:

 “Oral History Transcripts,” the repository of FDA oral histories that includes dozens of interviews with women in FDA and their contributions to all aspects of the agency:

4.  The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

A virtual exhibit on securing the 1938 Act:

An overview of product regulation in the early years after passage of the law:

5.  A chronology of FDA and changes in federal regulation.

Significant events in food and drug law history:


The United States House of Representatives was established with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and first met on April 1, 1789. The History, Art and Archives office studies and documents the rich history of the House of Representatives as a resource for Members, staff, scholars, the media, and the public. It both serves as the House’s institutional memory and strives to inspire greater understanding about that body’s central role in U.S. history.

The Office of Art and Archives curates the House Collection, which encompasses the entire sweep of the institution’s history, from the laying of the Capitol’s cornerstone to the present day. The office provides information and guidance on the collection for members and staff, the media, scholars, and the general public. The Archives staff process the official records of the House and oversee their eventual safe transfer to the National Archives, help House committees and officers identify records for permanent retention, and provide management advice to Members for their congressional papers.

The oral history program of the U.S. House of Representatives provides detailed descriptions of legislative processes and procedures, as well as recollections about the evolving nature of the institution. The interviews add a personal element to the often unfamiliar and complicated inner workings of Congress.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1. Civil rights.

The House and Civil Rights:

2. Women’s suffrage.

Jeannette Rankin’s Historic Election, A Century of Women in Congress:


Officially titled the United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), U.S. State Department, the IBWC was established jointly with Mexico in 1889. The mission of the IBWC is to apply the rights and obligations which the Governments of the United States and Mexico assume under the numerous boundary and water treaties and related agreements, and to do so in a way that benefits the social and economic welfare of the peoples on the two sides of the boundary and improves relations between the two countries.

Originally known as the International Boundary Commission (IBC), it traces its roots to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Treaty of 1853, which established temporary joint commissions to survey, map, and demarcate with ground landmarks the new United States – Mexico boundary.  The Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty of February 2, 1848 established the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.  The Gadsden Treaty of December 30, 1853, reestablished the southern boundary of New Mexico and Arizona to enable the United States to construct a railroad to the west coast along a southern route and to resolve a question arising from the 1848 Treaty as to the location of the southern boundary of New Mexico. When the U.S. and Mexico established the International Boundary Commission (IBC) on March 1, 1889, it was as a temporary body that would apply the rules that were adopted by the Convention of 1884.   The IBC was extended indefinitely in 1900, and the Water treaty of 1944 changed its name to International Boundary and Water Commission.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1. Treaties of the United States: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the New Borderlands.

After the end of the U.S. – Mexico war of 1848 and with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a new border was established. But the border was not secure, as seen with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and changes to the former treaty.,;;

2. Water and the Right of Use – Water Treaties with Mexico: Water Treaties pertaining to the Waters along the U.S.- Mexico border.

Treaties and Conventions of the U.S. and Mexico have established the International border between the two countries. These have also allocated water resources (Conventions of 1906 and 1933, and Water Treaty of 1944) and their use. This has helped to alleviate disputes and allocation of water and land resources that might occur. Diversion dams along the Rio Grande help to divert flood water but also provide for irrigation to lands far from the river.;;;;;;

3. Boundary Dispute and Compromise: The Rio Grande and Chamizal International Boundary at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and the 1911 arbitration.

The IBWC was instrumental in the development of the Chamizal Convention of August 29, 1963, which resolved the nearly 100-year-old boundary problem at El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, known as the Chamizal dispute. It involved some 600 acres (243 hectares) of territory which were transferred from the south to the north bank of the Rio Grande by movement of the river during the mid-Nineteenth Century.  By this Convention, the two Governments gave effect to a 1911 arbitration award under 1963 conditions.  The IBWC relocated and concrete-lined 4.4 miles of the Rio Grande channel and transferred 437.18 acres (176.92 hectares) from the north side (U.S.) to the south side (Mexico) of the river.;;;; (This is a National Park Service webpage.)

4. Minutes and Dispute Resolution: The role of both Commissions in how they handle border situations based on their respective mission statements and compromise in the Minutes process.

Since the first Minute of 1922, Minutes are recorded decisions of each Commission and binding agreements of the IBWC intended to implement treaties. They take effect once approved by the U.S. Department of State and Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.;;;;;;

5. Flooding and Dams: The Mission of the IBWC regarding flood control, water storage and power generation.

The many rivers that cross the border, or that constitute the border, are vital for both economic and cultural endeavors by both countries. The IBWC has levee systems to keep the rivers from flooding cities and towns along the respective borders. The Tijuana River and the Rio Grande have levee systems to keep the rivers in check during flood events and to reduce the loss to life and property. Hydro-electric power plants and storage dams were built to curtail flooding and also for power generation, on both sides of the border. This power generation has helped to develop the cities and towns on the river with cheap and reliable electricity for the economic benefit of both countries.;;;;;;


U.S. Marshals Service is part of the Department of Justice.  The Office of U.S. Marshal was established by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789.  It is the oldest federal law enforcement organization designed for that purpose.

The mission of the agency has changed over the course of time.  Primary duties include protection of the federal courts and the judiciary, federal fugitive investigations, management and disposition of federally-seized assets, and the Witness Protection Program.  Historical duties included taking the Federal Census from 1790 to 1870, apprehending counterfeiting operations before the advent of the Secret Service, and enforcing the Illicit Distilling Laws in the Appalachian Mountains from the 1870s until largely transferred in the mid-20th Century.

There are multitudes of “other duties as assigned” during the course of our agency history.  One was a period we worked on the Air Piracy Program as “Sky Marshals” (1969-73). Currently the Transportation Security Administration provides what are known as “Air Marshals.” 

Most researchers don’t realize there were also city or municipal marshals, such as those in Dodge City in 1878.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics:

1.  Period of the Old West—Although the history of the U.S. Marshals follows that of America itself, we are most often seen in this era.  In the absence of statehood, the deputy U.S. Marshal takes the place of the state police as an alternative to the military and local police.  As federal territories become states, our visibility wanes. Within the bounds of this time period are places and events well known to legend:  Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory (Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett); Fort Smith, Arkansas & the Indian Territory (“Heck” Thomas, Bass Reeves, Ada Carnutt, Bill Tilghman, etc.); and Arizona Territory (the Earp Brothers) among them.

2.  Civil Rights and the Integration of Educational Institutions in the American South—After Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a civilian agency was needed to enforce the court rulings associated with integration.  Beginning with the unfinished operation in the fall of 1958 in Little Rock through the Busing crises across the country in the mid-1970s, the U.S. Marshals were there.  These were the four most notable operations:  New Orleans (1960); Oxford, Mississippi (1962); Tuscaloosa, AL (1963); and the final march into Selma, AL (1965).

3.  Modern Law Enforcement in the United States—The U.S. Marshals Service has matured in its operational size and structure.  Its core functions—fugitive investigations, court security, federal prison operations and transportation, management and disposition of federally-seized assets, and the Witness Protection Program—continue to thrive.  

Selected Online Agency Historical Resources:

At the History Page (above), historians and researchers have access there to our organization’s historical timeline, and many other features.  Historians and researchers can chronologically review our highlights. The historical page also features such topics as our role in various Civil Rights events.

There are two official U.S. Marshals Service histories. They exist in hardcopy only. They should be available in university and large public libraries, and can be obtained through interlibrary loan:

1. The Lawmen by Frederick S. Calhoun. (1989, 1991)  This is the 200th anniversary history, detailing the agency’s founding in 1789 and its common threads to Federalism.  Although it ends about 1989, great focus is on the early periods of the U.S. Marshals.  This volume is currently out of print, but can be found in libraries and on various used and rare book sites.

2. Forging the Star by David S. Turk. (2016)  This is the official modern history of the agency.  The formation of headquarters is the common thread, and its origins go back to the 1940s. Over 500 pages is dedicated to the complicated history of a growing organization as it handles new missions through the Civil Rights Era and into the 2000s.  This book is available in libraries and is in print, published by the University of North Texas Press.


The National Cemetery Administration (NCA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was established in 1973. (Note: many national cemeteries were operated by the U.S. Army from prior to the Civil War until 1973.) 

NCA’s mission is to honor veterans and their families with burial benefits--final resting places in national cemeteries that commemorate their service and sacrifice to the Nation. It is part of President Abraham Lincoln's promise, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."  Specifically, NCA marks veterans' graves with a government-furnished headstone, marker, or medallion; provides Presidential Memorial Certificates to recognize their service; and provides grants for establishing or expanding state and tribal government veterans cemeteries.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Online Agency Historical Resources.

  • Civil War and the origin of veteran burial benefits.

The first reference to “national cemeteries” was in a July 17, 1861, omnibus legislation signed by President Lincoln. It is later codified with specific elements that physically define national cemeteries in the February 22, 1867, National Cemetery Act. The built features--lodge, enclosing wall, and headstones--continue to represent NCA’s heritage, even as we develop new cemeteries to serve a new generation of patriots.

  • Headstones, markers, and evolving government benefits that honor Veterans.

The U.S. Army, then NCA, have responded to the evolving need to honor veterans with appropriate memorial products—from the first marble upright or flat bronze markers, to Confederate dead, and more recently, columbaria (vaults for funeral urns) and bronze medallions. Similarly, NCA cemeteries have grown in scale and complexity over the years, and increasingly have been constructed where veterans live.

  • Gettysburg Address and Memorial Day.

President Lincoln’s notable Gettysburg Address, 1863, is associated with all national cemeteries and their solemn meaning. A cast-metal version of the speech was installed in the cemeteries in 1909. Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), established in 1868, is the most significant annual event held in the national cemeteries. This is the day Americans remember servicemen and servicewomen who did not come home from war.         

  • Commemorative Monuments and Medals of Honor.

Commemorative monuments that memorialize fallen troops have been placed in what are now national cemeteries and NCA soldiers lots since before the Civil War. More than 1,240 such objects—large and small, figurative and symbolic, honoring a single regiment or all veterans of war—are essential components of these national shrines. More than 30 mark the graves of Confederate dead who died as POWs during the Civil War. Every war also results in special heroes, men who have been awarded the Medal of Honor for above-and-beyond bravery. Many of these recipients are buried in NCA cemeteries.     


The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Health and Human Services, was founded in 1887. As well as being the major source of funding for biomedical research in the U.S. through its grants program, the NIH has made seminal contributions to basic and clinical science to turn the tragedy of human suffering into triumph over the infectious, genetic, and chronic diseases that plague us.

The Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (ONHM), founded in 1987, maintains the agency history page. Their mission is to document, preserve, and interpret NIH history.  The collections provide a unique testimony to the achievements of the collective work done at the NIH since its inception, and include policy, budget, and, of course, biomedical discoveries.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:


In the early 1980s, a new disease that was always fatal burst into the global spotlight, killing millions of people around the world.  What was it?  How was it transmitted? Could it be treated?  Could it be prevented?  Those were questions that researchers at the National Institutes of Health asked – and answered – during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  It was the contributions of patients, nurses, physicians, and scientists at the NIH that identified the cause of AIDS, and resulted in their development of the first treatment for it.

“In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS” is an ONHM website that presents the history of AIDS from before its identification, using oral histories, essays, and images.  Complete transcripts of the oral histories are provided, as well as a documentary archive with primary sources and an image archive. There are also links to other sites for more information.


2.  Pellagra.

Almost forgotten now is a disease which killed thousands of Americans, mostly in the South.  Called “pellegra” the disease caused diarrhea, dementia, and death.  The human suffering and tragedy was significant, and the economic effects were important as well.  Dr. Joseph Goldberger of the Public Health Service’s Hygienic Laboratory, precursor of the NIH, was assigned to see what caused the disease in 1914.  Most physicians believed that it was an infectious disease, but Goldberger noted that it only affected poor people, particularly those in prison, mental hospitals, and orphanages, but not their caretakers.  He thought the cause of the disease was a result of poverty and set out to prove it.  Through disgusting experiments on himself and colleagues and epidemiological studies on affected populations, Goldberger was able to prove the cause of pellegra was a dietary deficiency.  It was the first time that the lack of a particular nutrient was scientifically shown to cause disease.  The tragedy of this story is that thousands of people were sick or died from pellegra for the simple want of an adequate diet.  The triumph is not just Goldberger’s discovery of the cause, but his triumph over the political and social forces that refused to accept his findings.

The web exhibit “Dr. Joseph Goldberger and the War on Pellegra” presents this story with essays and images:

ONHM also holds in its collection Goldberger’s diary of this time in his life.  There are also numerous online resources for this topic.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950. Its mission is "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense." NSF is vital because we support basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future. This type of support:

  • Is a primary driver of the U.S. economy.
  • Enhances the nation's security.
  • Advances knowledge to sustain global leadership.

NSF funds research in all fields of science and engineering and supports education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With an annual budget of $7.5 billion (FY 2017), we are the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. In many fields, such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing. 

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics:

1. Fulfilling the Mission: How has NSF fulfilled its mission (see above)?

2. STEM Education has always been an important part of NSF’s activities. From educational television programming for children through research fellowships for graduate students, NSF has supported education from its earliest days. On an individual basis how have these efforts influenced you and the people you know?

3. National Security: When we think of national security, we often first turn to the military and related technologies. But keeping individuals and the country safe requires more than troops, ships, planes, and equipment. Disease, extreme weather, cybercrime, and more call for diverse investments in research. NSF has contributed to the internet, to cell phones, to MRI, to weather prediction, to new biometric measures, and more. Explore what basic research means for national security.

4. Industrial Research with NSF Support: NSF developed its Small Business Innovation Research Program in the late 1970s. As more agencies developed similar programs, it started a government-wide drive to fund research at small firms. These programs have been enormously successful and resulted in many additional industrial partnership programs like Innovation Corps, or I-Corps. Can you explore some these partnerships in your community? What changes in science policy have promoted these types of programs, and why?

5. Diversity in the STEM Workforce: For decades NSF has promoted greater inclusion for underrepresented groups. Such programs aim to level the playing field for all, to encourage interest in STEM careers, and to maximize the potential of the entire U.S. workforce. Can you find and analyze the demographic trends in the STEM workforce? How might such programs have impacted you or others you know? What does it mean to the nation that such programs exist?

Selected Online Agency Historical Resources:

The NSF History Page, above, is the principal online resource. Additional information can be found on these NSF pages:


The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was established in 1975. The predecessor agency was the Atomic Energy Commission, established in 1946. The NRC is an independent agency created by Congress. Its mission is to license and regulate the civilian use of radioactive materials in the United States to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.

The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power plants; research, test, and training reactors; nuclear fuel cycle facilities; and radioactive materials used in medicine, academia, and industry. The agency also regulates the transport, storage, and disposal of radioactive materials and waste; most Federal agencies’ use and possession of radioactive materials; and the export and import of radioactive materials.

Home Page URL:

History Page URL:

Suggested Research Topics and Related Historical Resources:

1. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954—Promoting Nuclear Energy and Protecting the Public.

This Act is the fundamental U.S. law on both the civilian and the military uses of nuclear materials. On the civilian side, it provides for both the development and the regulation of the uses of nuclear materials and facilities in the United States, declaring the policy that "the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to promote world peace, improve the general welfare, increase the standard of living, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise."

NRC Resources:

2. Creating an Independent Regulatory—the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974.

This Act established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, a single agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, had responsibility for the development and production of nuclear weapons and for both the development and the safety regulation of the civilian uses of nuclear materials. The Act of 1974 split these functions, assigning to one agency, now the Department of Energy, the responsibility for the development and production of nuclear weapons, promotion of nuclear power, and other energy-related work, and assigning to the NRC the regulatory work, which does not include regulation of defense nuclear facilities.

NRC Resources:

3. The 1975 Browns Ferry Fire.

The Browns Ferry fire occurred three months after the NRC began operations in January 1975. The fire had a significant impact on the new agency and the regulation of nuclear power plant safety.

NRC Resources:

4. The Three Mile Island Accident.

On March 28, 1979, the debate over nuclear power safety moved from the hypothetical to reality. An accident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania melted about half of the reactor's core and for a time generated fear that widespread radioactive contamination would result. The crisis ended without a major release of dangerous forms of radiation or a need to order a general evacuation, but it pointed out that new approaches to nuclear regulation were essential. In the aftermath of the accident, the NRC placed much greater emphasis on operator training and "human factors" in plant performance, severe accidents that could occur as a result of small equipment failures (as occurred at Three Mile Island), emergency planning, and plant operating histories.

NRC Resources:,%20Review%20of%20Dose%20Assessments%20at%20TMI%20and%20Recommendations%20for%20Future%20Research.pdf,%20Vol.%2012,%20Socioeconomic%20Impacts%20of%20Nuclear%20Generating%20Stations,%20Three%20Mile%20Island%20Case%20Study%20(1982-07).pdf

5. The Search for a High-Level Waste Repository.

Since the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy expended considerable effort to locate a permanent site for a high-level waste repository. As a regulator, NRC also devoted a great deal of attention to the questions of safety regarding a proposed site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which has been a matter of public fear and bitter political controversy.

NRC Resources:


Society for History in the Federal Government
PO BOX 14139
Ben Franklin Station, Washington, DC 20044

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software