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Environmental Factor, February 2012

NIH turns 125

By Eddy Ball

NIH lab circa 1899

Scientists worked at the bench of the Hygienic Laboratory at its first facility in Washington, D.C., circa 1899. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Ida Bengtson, Ph.D. working in the lab.

In 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, bacteriologist Ida Bengtson, Ph.D., (http://www.gesnerus.ch/fileadmin/media/pdf/2005_3-4/257-272_Lindenmann.pdf)  who was a major figure in typhus research, became the first woman on the professional staff at the PHS Hygienic Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

NIH Lab mass spectrometer

By the 1970s, NIH labs began to look more like their modern counterparts, with computers to aid in the collection, analysis, and display of data from laboratory instruments, such as this mass spectrometer. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

As NIEHS looks forward to its 50th anniversary, NIH geared up for a celebration of 125 years of turning discovery into health. The NIH Staff Training in Extramural Programs kicked off the NIH quasquicentennial celebration with a special event Jan. 12 titled “NIH: Looking Back and Moving Forward,” featuring presentations by NIH scientists David Cantor, Ph.D., of the Office of NIH History; David M. Morens, M.D., of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Alan Schechter, M.D., of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

NIH traces its roots to August 1887, when a one-room laboratory was created within the Marine Hospital Service (MHS), which later became the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), parent agency of NIH.

The MHS had been established in 1798 to provide for the medical care of merchant seamen. In the 1880s, Congress charged the MHS with examining passengers on arriving ships for clinical signs of infectious diseases, especially the dreaded diseases cholera and yellow fever, in order to prevent epidemics.

The Hygienic Laboratory is born

In 1887, MHS authorized Joseph Kinyoun, M.D., (http://www.nih.gov/about/almanac/historical/directors.htm#kinyoun)  a young MHS physician trained in new bacteriological methods, to set up a one-room laboratory in the Marine Hospital at Stapleton, Staten Island, New York. Kinyoun called this facility a laboratory of hygiene, in imitation of the leading-edge German facilities of the time, and to indicate that the laboratory's purpose was to serve the public's health.

Within a few months, Kinyoun had identified the cholera bacillus and used his Zeiss microscope to demonstrate it to his colleagues as confirmation of their clinical diagnoses. Three years later, Kinyoun’s Hygienic Laboratory moved to Washington, D.C., where Kinyoun started a training program in bacteriology for MHS officers, and conducted numerous tests of water purity and air pollution for the District of Columbia and Congress.

In 1901, Congress appropriated $35,000 for a new building to house the laboratory and its expanded programs. In 1902, MHS was reorganized as PHS, and Kenyoun’s lab transitioned into the Division of Pathology and Bacteriology with three new components that represented the most fruitful areas for research at that time — the Divisions of Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Zoology.

The importance of these new programs was underscored by the provision that the PHS could hire scientist researchers with Ph.D. degrees to head them. Up until this time, the professional staff had been limited to physicians.

With its roots established and the landscape of medicine and public health changing dramatically during the first decades of the 20th century, in 1930 Congress changed the name of the Hygienic Laboratory to the National Institute of Health. The establishment of the National Cancer Institute in 1937; a reorganization in 1948 that modified the name of NIH to reflect additional institutes; and an expansion of the number of new institutes and centers, including NIEHS in 1966, to their current number of 27, all helped make NIH what it is today.

(This story was adapted from narrative on the NIH History website. (http://www.nih.gov/about/history.htm)  )




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