Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) represent the world’s preeminent biomedical research organization. NIH is credited with decades of contributions to global health efforts that have saved millions of lives. As it approaches its 125th anniversary on 27 August 2012, it is worth considering how and for what purpose NIH was established, and how it developed from a one-man, one-room “Hygienic Laboratory” in 1887—in its early years, it was called the “Laboratory of Hygiene” and such other names as the “Chemical and Bacteriological Laboratory”—to the important, independent entity it has since become. Although there is substantial historical documentation about NIH beginning in 1930—the year it was named the National Institute of Health (1–5)—its early history is less well known. Newly discovered research information on Hygienic Laboratory founder Joseph James Kinyoun—supplemented by preliminary information from thousands of briefly examined scientific, personal, and governmental documents, as well as personal effects, photographs, and original laboratory equipment maintained by Kinyoun’s descendants—should soon change this. After these materials are examined, archived, cataloged, and made available to scholars, we can look forward to a clearer picture of the dawn of the microbial era in the United States and the founding and early years of NIH. It is a story not just of scientific advances but also of opportunity, politics, war, and the development of a young nation.

This sketch draws upon certain of these new materials to place Joseph (“Joe” as he liked to be called) James Kinyoun (1860–1919) and the Hygienic Laboratory in the context of fast-moving medical discoveries at the end of the 19th century, and to examine the motives, beliefs, intentions, and actions of Kinyoun and the men of his scientific world who created the NIH, and whose accomplishments represent the first steps in writing its history.

Content last reviewed on