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The Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University is the oldest scientific institute dedicated to nonhuman primate (NHP) research. The origins of the Yerkes Research Center can be traced to an article the center’s founder, Dr. Robert M. Yerkes, published in Science in 1916. In the article, Dr. Yerkes called for the establishment of a primate research institute for the systematic study of the fundamental instincts and social relations of primates. Dr. Yerkes reasoned primates, because of their evolutionary closeness to humans, could shed the most light upon the roots of human behavior.

He also wrote in Science, “I am wholly convinced that the various medical sciences and medical practices have vastly more to gain…from the persistent and ingenious use of the monkeys and the anthropoid apes in experimental inquiry.”

Dr. Yerkes received a doctorate in psychology in 1902 from Harvard University and was a distinguished Professor of Psychobiology at Yale University. His research on his first two great apes, Chim and Panzee, and the other great apes he studied during the 1920s helped persuade Yale University, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation to fund the establishment of the Yale Anthropoid Experiment Station, later named the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology, which opened in 1930 in Orange Park, Florida.

The Center’s original chimpanzee colony included four animals Dr. Yerkes had in Connecticut, 13 chimpanzees donated by Mrs. Rosalie Abreu, a prominent Cuban, and 16 great apes that were a gift from the Pasteur Institute of France. The same year, the first chimpanzee birth occurred at the Orange Park laboratories, and the offspring, named Alpha, provided Dr. Yerkes with the first detailed observations of the chimpanzee’s growth, development and reproductive processes.

When Dr. Yerkes retired in 1942, Yale University renamed the research center the Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology in honor of Dr. Yerkes’ scientific leadership and contributions to science.

Upon Dr. Yerkes’ death in 1956, Yale officials decided geographical separation of the university and the Orange Park labs was no longer conducive to collaborative research and educational programs for Yale faculty and students. Later that year, Emory University agreed to assume ownership of the Yerkes Laboratory. The transfer occurred at a time of increasing scientific interest in the study of NHPs, in part a result of the development of the polio vaccine through primate research.

NIH Designation

In 1960, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Primate Research Centers Program to provide the scientific community with the specialized resources needed for NHP research. The following year, Emory received NIH’s Regional Primate Research Center status for the Yerkes Laboratories in Orange Park. In 2002, the NIH renamed Yerkes and the seven other Regional Primate Research Centers as National Primate Research Centers in recognition of their involvement with and impact on research programs throughout the United States and the world.

Relocation to Atlanta

After much consideration and location scouting, Emory decided to relocate the research center to its Druid Hills campus in Atlanta and to a field station in Lawrenceville, Ga. NIH funding enabled the move, which began in 1963 and was completed in 1965.

Campus Expansion

Since moving to Atlanta, Yerkes has undertaken five major facility expansions:

  • 1999, Main Center: to house most of the Emory Vaccine Center whose mission is to improve human health by conducting fundamental and clinical research that leads to the development of effective vaccines against diseases of global importance.
  • 2004, Main Center: to open a 92,000-square-foot Neuroscience Research Facility, certified LEED Silver, with state-of-the-art lab and imaging facilities.
  • 2008, Field Station: to open a multi-purpose building, known as the CVMAR and certified LEED Gold, that is the cornerstone for using social colonies of genetically typed NHPs to help researchers understand the interaction between genetics, the environment and the roles they play in human health and disease.
  • 2013, Main Center: to open the Dual-Function Facility (DFF), certified LEED Gold, and the Integrated Research Addition, certified LEED Silver. The DFF supports infectious diseases and transplantation research. The National Institutes of Health awarded the Yerkes Research Center $15 million for the building construction as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The three-story Integrated Research Addition includes research space for behavioral neuroscience, drug development, genetics and psychiatric diseases.

AAALAC Int. Accreditation

The Yerkes Research Center has maintained “continuous full accreditation” from AAALAC Int. since 1984. Such accreditation is considered the gold standard for laboratory animal care. Animal Resources staff members provide 24-hour care. Staff members include clinical veterinarians, veterinary technicians, animal care technicians, colony management personnel and more.

For nine decades, the Yerkes Research Center has been dedicated to improving human and animal health. We will continue to build upon our solid foundation of scientific advancements and to provide expert care for all of the animals at our research center.  


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