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Vol. LXIII, No. 22
October 28, 2011

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NIH’s Founder a Titan in Any Era, Morens Shows

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NIAID’s Dr. David Morens
NIAID’s Dr. David Morens

There’s one thing you can say for sure about Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, who is commonly regarded as the founder of what eventually became the National Institutes of Health: with his scientific accomplishments, range of high-level association and effectiveness as a shaper of the nation’s public health, he takes a back seat to no one who has subsequently held a leadership position at NIH.

In a Sept. 26 NLM History of Medicine seminar he titled “The Forgotten Indispensable Man: Joe Kinyoun and the Birth of NIH,” Dr. David Morens, senior advisor to NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, told a Lister Hill Auditorium audience that “not much is known about” Kinyoun [pronounced KIN-yen]. Yet he went on to pack a 50-minute lecture with fascinating biographical details that will eventually become a journal article he is co-authoring with Fauci.

Can a major motion picture be far behind?

Morens, an epidemiologist by training who has been studying emerging infectious diseases for the past 35 years, has made the life and times of Joe Kinyoun a hobby for the past 6 years. He is hoping that Kinyoun’s great-grandchildren decide to place their large collection of Kinyoun’s papers, photos (he was a gifted amateur photographer, Morens said) and memorabilia in an archival source that can protect them and make them available to scholars, whether that is at NIH or some other professional archive. Doing so will further burnish the reputation of a man whose federal career nearly ended in infamy.


Kinyoun was born in 1860 in rural East Bend, N.C., the son of a surgeon in the Confederate Army. His dad had enjoyed “an amazing education,” Morens said, earning both law and medical degrees while studying at such institutions as Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina and Columbia University.

After the Civil War, the family moved to western Missouri, a “violent, wild west environment” where young Joe, who arrived at age 5, was taught through his teen years by a series of tutors in such subjects as algebra, geometry, German, French and Spanish.

Having apprenticed in medicine with his dad, Kinyoun went in 1881 to St. Louis College of Physicians and Surgeons for a year, then on to what was regarded as one of America’s top medical schools, Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City.

He had practiced medicine in New York for only 9 months when a tragedy befell him: he lost his first patient, a young girl suffering from diphtheria. “It was a big turning point in his life,” said Morens. “He was devastated by it. He was very depressed and hard on himself, and almost quit medicine.”

Kinyoun then spent 3 years with his father in private practice, charging $1 for house calls and $5 to deliver a baby. During this time, he acquired a microscope, although he had had no training in bacteriology at Bellevue. He began to study diseases afflicting farm animals, such as anthrax and pasteurellosis.

In 1886, he joined the Marine Hospital Service, the progenitor of NIH, for what would become a lifetime spent in the uniformed services; Morens linked himself to this tradition by giving his talk in his PHS uniform.

Morens has been studying details of Kinyoun’s life for the past 6 years. Kinyoun returned to uniform in 1918 when he joined the U.S. Army during World War I. Kinyoun, circa 1887
Morens has been studying details of Kinyoun’s life for the past 6 years.

Kinyoun returned to uniform in 1918 when he joined the U.S. Army during World War I.

Kinyoun, circa 1887

Photos of Morens: Ernie Branson

Kinyoun barely passed the entrance exam into the service, but was undoubtedly helped by having enlisted a series of high-powered advocates including esteemed medical faculty and both a Missouri senator and governor. But the elation of acceptance into the MHS was soon tempered by the loss of his 2-year-old daughter to an old nemesis—diphtheria.

Kinyoun was assigned to the Marine Hospital, Staten Island, N.Y., where he set up his Hygienic Laboratory—the forerunner of NIH—in the Stapleton Bldg., which still stands. He quickly scored a scientific coup when, under the direction of Surgeon General John B. Hamilton, he isolated, for the first time in the U.S., cholera, which made national headlines and greatly enhanced the visibility of the MHS, said Morens.

Kinyoun also directed the erection of isolation tents for suspected cases of tuberculosis; the MHS had long been a pioneer in the use of quarantine, during the pre-microbiology era, to limit the spread of such diseases as cholera, yellow fever and smallpox.

In 1891, the Hygienic Lab moved to Washington, D.C., and Kinyoun found himself employed at the Butler Bldg., just on the other side of the U.S. Capitol from his home at 210 New Jersey Ave., N.W. He traveled extensively, Morens said, visiting such luminaries as Louis Pasteur in Paris and Robert Koch, with whom he became friendly, in Berlin. He learned about the development of diphtheria antiserum from the blood of horses and in 1894 introduced this therapy to the U.S.

“His research in this era was just phenomenal,” Morens said. Kinyoun invented a staining technique that bore his name, began to tackle the problem of contaminants in the Potomac River and broadened his public health expertise from quarantine to larger issues. He also invented a portable steam disinfector and a variety of autoclaves and fumigators.

His social life, too, expanded as he came to know senators and congressmen as both neighbors and members of downtown clubs, including the Cosmos Club.

This photo of Kinyoun dates to the early or mid 1890s, says Morens. Visible in Kinyoun’s right hand is the trip wire he used to activate the camera; this is a self-portrait. Among many other interests, Kinyoun was also a photographer.
This photo of Kinyoun dates to the early or mid 1890s, says Morens. Visible in Kinyoun’s right hand is the trip wire he used to activate the camera; this is a self-portrait. Among many other interests, Kinyoun was also a photographer.

At one point, he was retained to improve ventilation in the Capitol itself. His laboratory was part of an MHS exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and he developed a better smallpox vaccine technique. The restless Kinyoun also earned a Ph.D. at Georgetown University and joined the faculty there, experimenting with the new field of radiology before moving on to a faculty appointment at George Washington University.

Morens said that, all his life, Kinyoun enjoyed a gift for association with people who would become prominent, including presidents (William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, whose “Rough Riders” Kinyoun had quarantined at Montauk, Long Island’s Camp Wyckoff after the Spanish-American War) and esteemed scientists, including Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who discovered the cause of and cure for pellagra.

In 1900, Kinyoun was transferred to San Francisco as part of the MHS response to a pandemic of plague. He was put in charge of the main west coast quarantine station at Angel Island, Calif. It was here that “one of the most infamous public health crises ended his Marine Hospital Service career,” said Morens.

Briefly, Kinyoun ran afoul of California Gov. Henry Gage, who not only denied the existence of plague in his state but also accused Kinyoun of faking the epidemic in order to win increased funding for local public health, and in so doing was supporting the governor’s liberal rivals. Kinyoun was vilified as a charlatan and bioterrorist; at one point, a $7,000 bounty was put on his head in San Francisco and he took to carrying a sidearm, while requiring both police and soldiers as bodyguards.

Further, in a bizarre case of mistaken identity, he was charged with murder on the day that, having resigned his post under pressure, he was to leave San Francisco.

Three top scientists vindicated Kinyoun, but the damage to his reputation, at least in California, was done.

Kinyoun retreated from federal service to the pharmaceutical business for 4 years, but returned to public health as a member of the D.C. health department from 1907 to 1918, during which time he served as president or vice-president of the nation’s major public health associations. He also was an advocate for a national sanitary organization, sort of an amalgamation of what became NIH, the CDC and FDA, Morens said. Kinyoun “was a prime mover behind the ideas” buttressing the legislation that eventually created these agencies.

During World War I, Kinyoun returned to uniform in 1918 as an Army enlistee at age 56. A year later, on Valentine’s Day 1919, he died of lymphosarcoma of the neck and was buried next to his daughter Bettie.

Morens called Kinyoun “a patriot all his life.” Indeed, a Liberty ship was named after him in 1944. “He was a ‘big picture’ guy and operated behind the scenes,” he added. “He was not necessarily a mover and a shaker or a leader of men, but he was beloved by his fellow scientists.

“He was very circumspect,” Morens continued. “He never went beyond the data. He also wrote poems and was considered witty and fun company—kind of a likeable, good ol’ southern boy.”

Two of his trainees, Hugh Cummings and Thomas Parran, went on to become surgeons general; Walter Reed had been his mentor, friend and confidant.

Kinyoun’s widow lived to age 97 before dying in 1948; among her effects were many large boxes of her husband’s papers. Morens and NIH Stetten scholar Eva Ahren are hoping these documents end up filling out a portrait of NIH’s founder as a titan in his, indeed any, time. NIHRecord Icon

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