Five Decades of Discovery

By Jan Rosemergy

The story of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center begins with the story of the Joseph and Rose Kennedy family whose nine children included a daughter, Rosemary, with intellectual disabilities, and a future president. As siblings, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and John F. Kennedy understood the profound effects of disability not only on the individual but on the entire family and their relationship to the community. President Kennedy took action.

President Kennedy’s first step, in 1962, was creating the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and then the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. Among its members were Peabody College faculty members Lloyd Dunn, Ph.D., coordinator of special education, and Nicholas Hobbs, Ph.D., professor of psychology and chair of the Division of Human Development. The Panel recommended the establishment and support of Mental Retardation Research Centers to bring together scientists from many disciplines to address the causes and treatment of intellectual disabilities. On October 31, 1963, President Kennedy signed legislation to construct a national network of 12 Mental Retardation Research Centers.

Peabody College was viewed as a world leader in this arena. It had the nation’s first doctoral training program in mental retardation research, begun in 1954. The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation established Visiting Professorships in Mental Retardation Research at Peabody in 1962. The Institute on Mental Retardation and Intellectual Development, an NICHD program project, was founded in 1964. With this remarkable record, Peabody was successful in the national competition. The John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Education and Human Development was founded on May 29, 1965.

“The creation of the Kennedy Center resulted from a magical collaboration among the federal government, a private foundation, and a private college of education and human development,” said professor of psychology emeritus H. Carl Haywood, Ph.D., a Kennedy Foundation professor in mental retardation research at the time of the founding and the Center’s third director. “Without all three, it would not have happened.”

Interdisciplinary research

A fundamental principle was—and is—bringing together scientists from many disciplines to work together as a strategy for advancing knowledge more rapidly and efficiently than any single discipline can accomplish alone.

This Center was conceived initially as having an almost exclusive emphasis in education and the behavioral sciences, but with a determination that biology would not be neglected. This was accomplished through relationships with Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and Fisk University, as well as through the Center’s own biological research in its Psychobiology Laboratories.

When Peabody merged with Vanderbilt in 1979, the Center was able to expand its biological and biomedical research and include many more disciplines. The breadth and depth of research was enhanced further in 2001 when the Center became a university-wide research, training, diagnosis, and treatment institute, embracing faculty and resources in Medicine, Nursing, Arts and Science, and Peabody, as well as other Schools. Today the Center has more than 220 Vanderbilt faculty members from over 25 disciplines.

Intellectual and related disabilities and those at risk

The Center’s initial focus was on persons with intellectual disabilities, but a new dimension was added: individuals whose learning difficulties were largely due to inadequate opportunities to learn, lack of stimulation, ill health, poor nutrition, and the effects of poverty. Concern not only for individuals with disabilities but also for those whose development is at risk is a hallmark of this Center.

Throughout its history, Center investigators have pursued research in the broad areas of intellectual disabilities and other developmental disorders, child development, and family functioning. Much of this research has been conceived and conducted with the idea that education, broadly conceived, offers promising approaches to the solutions of many of society’s problems. For example, when solutions were sought to the problem of children with emotional disorders, Project Re-ED, an educational approach, was devised, tested, evaluated, and disseminated. When it became apparent that adverse social circumstances might be depriving children from low-income families of the proper physical, social, intellectual, and emotional development, the Early Training Project, an educational solution, was devised, which influenced the establishment of Head Start. Similarly, the work of the Center has been characterized by a commitment to families and to the principle that persons are influenced in powerful ways by settings and by other persons.

Mission-oriented research

From the outset, the Center’s work has been organized into mission-oriented research groups. During the early years those were the Institute on Mental Retardation and Intellectual Development (IMRID, 1964-1996), the Demonstration and Research Center on Early Education (DARCEE, 1966-1980), the Institute on School Learning and Individual Differences (1965-1972), the Center for Community Studies (1966-1981), the Research Group on Behavior Disorders in Children (1965-1972), and the Research Group on Sensory-Motor Disorders and Adaptive Behavior (1965-1972). These institutes were led by faculty researchers including Lloyd Dunn, Ph.D., Susan Gray, Ph.D., Raymond Norris, Ph.D., Wilbert Lewis, Ph.D., and J. R. Newbrough, Ph.D. Despite organizational changes over the decades to reflect faculty expertise and emerging knowledge, clusters of researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds working together on related problems have been a hallmark.

A third hallmark has been the inclusiveness of scientific efforts. Studies of learning, animal behavior, and more recently, brain development and plasticity and genetics have taken place alongside studies of the effects of early intervention and school-wide educational and mental health interventions. Another enduring hallmark has been pursuing science and improved practices within a community context. In addition, public support for persons with disabilities and their families has been a part of the Center’s mission, along with a commitment to transfer the knowledge generated by research into practice.

Research training

Research training is a part of the Center’s mission. It occurs at many levels: in classrooms and laboratories, in the conduct of research, in consultation with experts, in lectures and presentations of research methods and findings, and in collaboration among researchers. For over 50 years, the Center administered the Intellectual Disabilities Research Training Program, funded initially by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and later by NICHD. Graduates hold positions of responsibility in the national Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers and in the University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, as well as positions in various levels of government.

A second major research training program is Development of Psychopathology: From Brain and Behavioral Science to Intervention, funded by NIMH for over two decades. It prepares research scientists to contribute to knowledge about the psychosocial and neurobiological processes in the development and maintenance of psychopathology, and the translation of this basic knowledge into empirically supported interventions for treating and preventing psychopathology.

Kennedy Center investigators also serve as faculty in other Vanderbilt research training programs including those in special education, neuroscience, and vision.

Treatment and Research Institute on Autism Spectrum Disorder (TRIAD)

TRIAD was founded in 1998 by Vanderbilt psychologist Wendy Stone, Ph.D. Initially part of Vanderbilt Pediatrics, TRIAD is today part of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. As the incidence rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased, TRIAD’s leadership role in Tennessee and nationally has grown. TRIAD is dedicated to improving assessment and treatment services for children with ASD and their families, while advancing knowledge through research and providing evidence-based training. TRIAD partners with the Center for Child Development, Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics; the Vanderbilt LEND training program; the Autism Speaks Vanderbilt Autism Treatment Network Site; the Tennessee Department of Education; and community organizations.

VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities

In 1963, as the national Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Centers were being founded, federal legislation also authorized a national network of what are today known as University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. In addition to research, these Centers provide preservice training for future professionals in disability-related fields and practicing professionals, provide services and technical assistance, and disseminate information. Initially, each state and U.S. territory had such a center; today the network has expanded to 67, with funding from the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Administration for Community Living, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The University of Tennessee Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities in Memphis was Tennessee’s initial University Center for Excellence. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center was designated a University Center for Excellence in 2005, which has allowed the Center to expand training and community engagement to improve disabilities services across Tennessee. Our Center focuses on education and early education, employment, health and mental health, and quality of life. Our Community Advisory Council partners with our Center in planning, implementing, and evaluating activities. Within Tennessee, our Center partners with the Boling Center, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Disability Rights Tennessee.

Vanderbilt LEND

Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) programs provide long-term, graduate level interdisciplinary training as well as interdisciplinary services and care. LEND training aims to improve the health of infants, children, and adolescents with disabilities by preparing trainees from diverse professional disciplines to assume leadership roles in their respective fields and by insuring high levels of interdisciplinary clinical competence. The LENDs grew from the 1950s efforts of the Children's Bureau, now the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, to identify children with disabilities as a Title V program priority. Today they are funded under the Combating Autism Act and are administered by the Health Resources and Service's Administration's (HRSA) Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB). There are currently 43 LENDs in 37 states. Collectively, they form a national network that shares information and resources and maximizes their impact. They work together to address national issues of importance to children with special health care needs and their families, exchange best practices and develop shared products. They also come together regionally to address specific issues and concerns.

In 1998, the Vanderbilt LEND Training Program was established within Vanderbilt Pediatrics, and in 2008 the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center began administering the LEND program in partnership with Pediatrics. The Vanderbilt LEND includes faculty from several Vanderbilt department as well as from Belmont University, Tennessee State University, Meharry Medical College, and the University of Tennessee School of Social Work, as well as affiliates from Family Voices of Tennessee. The Vanderbilt LEND includes the disciplines of audiology, deaf education, family/parent resources, nursing, nutrition, occupational therapy, pediatric dentistry, pediatrics, pharmacy, physical therapy, psychiatry, psychology, social work, special education, and speech-language pathology.

The Vanderbilt LEND works closely with various university, family, and state agency partners to provide workshops, conferences, and distance education at the community, state, regional, and national levels. One outstanding example is LEND’s collaboration with the Maternal and Child Health Office, Tennessee Department of Health to jointly provide monthly distance training that is video-streamed to Health Department sites throughout Tennessee, with archiving for later viewing. Topics are based on needs of maternal and child populations, including those children with special health care conditions.


In 1966, at the inaugural meeting of the Center’s National Advisory Committee, founding director Nicholas Hobbs challenged those present: “In the character of what has been done, you may surmise what may be done, and more quickly move to share with us the task of inventing the future.” Fifty years from its founding, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigators are continuing to invent that future.

VISIT A DECADE: 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s


(615) 322-8240
110 Magnolia Circle
Nashville, TN 37203

Map & Directions


Find Us... Facebook Link Twitter Link