A Tribute to Duane Alexander, Former NICHD Director and Advocate for Learning Disabilities Research

Dr. G. Reid Lyon, the former chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), offered the following remembrance of his friend and colleague Dr. Duane Alexander, who died on February 16, 2020. Also provided is Lyon’s 1998 testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources that describes his early work under the leadership of Alexander that identified underperformance in reading as a significant public health problem. 

The recent passing of Dr. Duane Alexander, the former director of NICHD at the National Institutes of Health, is an enormous loss to children and adults with learning disabilities and dyslexia, their parents, their teachers, and the hundreds of scientists whose research was supported by NICHD funding. As a pediatrician, developmentalist, and scientist, he was acutely aware of the damaging impact these disorders had on a child’s school success, emotional and social development, and chances for meaningful employment as adults.

As director of NICHD, his relentless efforts established the research infrastructure critical to understanding why children struggled to read, write, and do math and what could be done about it. In many respects, this research program lead to what is now referred to as the “science of reading.” Many children who struggled in school because of dyslexia and other learning disabilities (LDs) became proficient learners as educators began to implement the early intervention and remediation practices designed and validated by NICHD researchers. He had the courage and prescience to educate the leadership at the National Institutes of Health and congressional members about the public health consequences of dyslexia and other LDs and helped them understand the agony children experienced when their reading and learning difficulties are exposed in front of their peers. He was able to obtain the funding necessary from Congress to put in place a network of reading research programs and establish the Learning Disability Research Centers, where trans-disciplinary teams of scientists were, and still are, working to uncover the neurobiological, genetic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and instructional mechanisms that impede reading, writing, and mathematics development and proficiency.

Duane insisted on employing longitudinal research so we could follow thousands of children over time for at least five years to determine the developmental course of skilled reading, dyslexia, and other LDs. Keep in mind that many of the children in these initial longitudinal studies are still being followed and studied today as adults. Very importantly, these designs provided the foundation to determine which instructional strategies were most beneficial at different phases of development and the conditions under which the instruction was most successful for a wide range of reading and learning disabilities, stimulating a much broader program of rigorous instructional research.

Duane recruited me in 1991 to lead and design the multidisciplinary longitudinal research programs he had envisioned. He wanted a scientist with specializations in both neuroscience and learning disabilities to lead the NICHD research programs in dyslexia and LDs, and I was lucky enough to come to his attention. Throughout my 14-year tenure at the National Institutes of Health, his support and wisdom were instrumental in creating research platforms that were unique in their scope and purpose. These research initiatives provided both experienced and newly minted scientists the opportunity to discover the origins of skilled reading and learning and the impact of reading failure on a child’s development and quality of life. 

As part of my job, Duane required me to testify before the Congressional House and Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committees every year from 1997 to 2005. He felt that briefing influential committees on our scientific progress was essential to elevating the visibility of long-term multidisciplinary longitudinal research. In addition, he wanted to keep legislators abreast of the findings and discoveries obtained by in-house NICHD scientists and NICHD-supported investigators working hard at the multisite reading and learning disabilities research networks. He knew that NICHD scientific contributions to the education, health, and future of children would stimulate additional research funds to expand existing efforts, and Congress agreed with him.

The transcript of my 1998 Senate testimony is provided to underscore Duane’s impact on the development of the science of reading and LDs. It is apparent from the testimony that substantial knowledge had been developed by 1998, particularly in the areas of reading development and specific reading disabilities. In particular, though explicit phonics instruction is necessary, and essential for children at risk or identified with dyslexia, we observed then that it is not sufficient for reading proficiency. As I observe the emergence of a new discussion about the best ways to teach children to read, I fear that the discussion will turn again to the age-old issue of phonics versus some type of immersion program. My testimony in 1998 was an attempt to move the discussion beyond these so-called debates because the science showed that learning to read involved multiple competencies taught explicitly, comprehensively, and differentiated to the needs of different children. The majority of these findings have been validated many times since then and have been instrumental in informing assessment and instructional practices, federal legislation recognizing reading disabilities including dyslexia, and the creation of the National Reading Panel, which is still relevant.

Duane took pride in knowing that much of the scientific information relevant to reading and LDs was developed under his leadership, but he was always concerned that the findings were not being thoughtfully implemented in the field and in teacher-preparation programs. His concerns have proven to be well founded. Were he able, he would tell us to follow the science. It does provide direction, but unfortunately is not the basis for decision making in education.

Those of us who served the NICHD under Duane’s mentorship were blessed to see how his integrity, passion for the welfare of children, devotion to science, and thinking “out of the box” defined his superb leadership capabilities that we hoped we could emulate some day. He was one of the kindest men that many of us had ever met, and we always knew he would support our efforts to realize his vision as long as we placed children first. He truly was a gift to this world.

G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D.
Former Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
National Institutes of Health