Waisman Center research programs originated in the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Memorial Laboratories, which opened in the early 1960s in an addition to the Orthopedic Children’s Hospital. The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation contributed a $225,000 grant for the laboratories, which were named in honor of President John F. Kennedy’s brother, who was killed in World War II. Harry A. Waisman directed the laboratories, which included Professors Ron Geison, Theo Gerritsen, George Kerr, John O’Brien, and Frank Siegel–all from the Department of Pediatrics–as well as a number of post-doctoral fellows and technicians. These scientists focused on the biochemistry of of intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Waisman Center is one of 14 Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Centers (IDDRCs) in the United States.
These centers were established at major universities at the recommendation of a presidential panel during the Kennedy Administration. This panel called for the establishment of broad-based, multi-disciplinary centers to further the understanding, treatment, and prevention of mental retardation and other developmental disabilities. UW-Madison was chosen as one of the early sites because of its outstanding research in the neurosciences and clinical capabilities related to developmental disabilities. Scientists from the Kennedy Laboratories moved to the new labs on the upper floors of the Waisman Center when it opened in 1973.
Since then, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has provided support for Waisman Center core research facilities. Today, Waisman Center scientists conduct extensive biomedical and behavioral studies aimed at advancing our knowledge about human development, developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative diseases.