The Bacon Street Annex: Early Radioisotope and Cancer Research at RTI
"At much less expense than if we built it from scratch"
In the late 1950s, aware that the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to fund the development of radioisotope applications centers, Arthur C. Menius, Jr., head of the physics department at NC State University, suggested RTI as a location. In his proposal, Menius said the surrounding three universities "can offer what one institution finds most difficult–the engineering and industrial knowledge supported by research and advanced concepts nurtured in an academic atmosphere...tempered by close cooperation in a small geographic area."
Menius got his way: in March 1959, AEC agreed to fund a $160,000 isotope development laboratory at RTI. The facility was headed by Ralph Ely, Jr., who had research experience both at AEC and in the nuclear power industry. Since a structure to house the laboratory had yet to be built, RTI leased a 10,000-square-foot building at 807 Bacon Street, in Durham, which staff dubbed the Bacon Street Annex. "It was in a distressed part of Durham, and we were able to get a very favorable rate on it," William Perkins (RTI's second-ever employee) recalls. "We modified it into a laboratory at much less expense than if we had had to build it from scratch."
Ely directed the laboratory for the duration of the two-year AEC contract. Since all RTI costs were subsidized by AEC, the laboratory was in a position to improve regional industries' practices free of charge, which allowed Ely to make new contacts for RTI in North Carolina. Moreover, when the contract ended, RTI was no longer obliged to concentrate on industrial application of radioisotopes–but it still had clients that needed its help.
Other new research fields emerged during the late 1950s. RTI's strategy was to identify scientists with stature in particular disciplines, persuade them to join the institute, and then leverage their renown to lure additional staff. As president George R. Herbert later told North Carolina magazine, "We built RTI from the top down, first hiring key people who could assemble top–notch staffs and establish high quality research programs in their respective fields."
Monroe E. Wall fit this model. The head of plant steroids at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Eastern Regional Research Laboratory, Wall had conducted extensive screening of plant samples to identify chemical substances that could be converted into arthritis and cancer treatments. The National Institutes of Health offered to fund Wall's cancer research, on the condition that he leave USDA, assemble a staff, and find a laboratory. Working out of the Bacon Street Annex, Wall soon put together a team of distinguished chemists, including F. Ivy Carroll (who went on to do seminal research in opioids) and Mansukh C. Wani (who discovered Taxol, one of the world's first effective cancer treatments).