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Another Kind of NIH Centennial

By Victoria A. Harden

In 1987, NIH observed the centennial of its founding as a one-room laboratory, but this year, 2002, marks another important anniversary: the creation of an organized research program.

When young Joseph J. Kinyoun was asked to set up a "laboratory of hygiene" at the Staten Island Marine Hospital in 1887, the United States was embarking on an experiment to see if the new science of bacteriology would really be helpful to the medical officers in the Marine Hospital Service. Within a decade, the U.S. Congress had found the laboratory to be extraordinarily useful. Kinyoun, however, was relieved of duty as director in 1899. The reason remains a mystery, as no explanatory documents survive. Kinyoun was not a "scientist's scientist," however, and the Surgeon General, Walter Wyman, who appointed the Hygienic Laboratory's director at that time, may have wanted a director more skilled in laboratory practices.

The person named as second director was Milton J. Rosenau. Thirty years old when he assumed leadership, the young physician stressed the need for an organized program of scientific research in his first Annual Report in 1900. He recommended, for example, a longer period of study for fewer officers in the bacteriological course. He also requested the outfitting of two portable laboratories in order to do good laboratory work at the site of epidemics, and he launched publication of the Hygienic Laboratory Bulletin. The first bulletin dealt with studies on bubonic plague, newly arrived from Asia on the west coast of the U.S.

NIH's second director, Dr. Milton J. Rosenau, stressed the need for an organized program of scientific research.

In 1902, Congress enacted a law that, among other items, reorganized the Hygienic Laboratory into four divisions, adding the cutting edge scientific disciplines of that time — zoology, pharmacology and chemistry — to the original work on infectious diseases, which was placed in a division called "bacteriology and pathology." With the addition of the new areas, it became evident scientists who had more specialized training — a Ph.D. instead of an M.D. — would also be needed in the research program. An advisory board of non-federal scientists was established for the laboratory, and the first members included the leaders of medical research at that time such as William H. Welch of Johns Hopkins University and Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute.

The previous year, Congress had allocated $35,000 for a separate building for the laboratory, and as the new director, Rosenau oversaw every detail of the construction. He designated that the building contain a scientific library large enough to hold 10,000 volumes. Workrooms were to be 20 x 40 feet with 15-foot ceilings and lighted from at least 3 sides, with most light coming from the north. The area should also contain "an incubator and a cool chamber."

How productive was the new research program in its early years?

Infectious Diseases

In the area of infectious diseases, cholera, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, smallpox, yellow fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever were all investigated. In 1908, George McCoy — later a director of the laboratory — discovered a new bacterium, which he named Bacterium tularense after Tulare County, Calif., where he first identified it as the cause of a "plague-like disease of rodents." In 1911, one of his colleagues, Edward Francis, picked up McCoy's work and subsequently demonstrated that the bacterium also caused a disease in humans, tularemia. The causative microorganism was later renamed for Francis and is now known as Francisella tularensis. Today, NIH continues to conduct research on it because of its threatened use as a bioterror agent.

Zoology

In August 1902, Charles Wardell Stiles became the first director of one of the newly created divisions, zoology. He came to the post from the Bureau of Animal Industry in the Department of Agriculture, where 3 months earlier he had described a new species of hookworm, Necator americanus (Stiles). Stiles served as scientific advisor to the Rockefeller Hookworm Commission during its public health campaign to eradicate hookworm. He also prepared an Index Catalog of Medical and Veterinary Zoology, a monumental reference work published by the Hygienic Laboratory, and served on the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, which negotiated internationally recognized scientific names for various species.

Chemistry

The first chief of the Division of Chemistry was Joseph Hoeing Kastle. Trained at Johns Hopkins University, Kastle was representative of the chemists at that time who were adopting the then-new methods of biochemistry. He published two Hygienic Laboratory Bulletins on the oxidases. He also worked on a chemical method to identify and estimate the amount of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and worked on the development of a "hemoglobinometer" for measuring the amount of hemoglobin in the blood.

Pharmacology

Reid Hunt, another Hopkins-trained scientist, was named the first chief of the Division of Pharmacology. In 1903 and 1904, while his new laboratory at the Hygienic Laboratory was being prepared, Hunt worked in Germany with the distinguished chemist Paul Ehrlich. Hunt's major interest was the powerful biological action of acetylcholine on blood pressure. He was also interested in the effects of alcohol and in 1902 alerted the American medical profession to the toxicity of methyl alcohol.


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