Dr. Joseph Kinyoun—Overview

Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun. Credit: National Library of Medicine, NIH

In 1887, Dr. Joseph James Kinyoun founded the Hygienic Laboratory, from which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evolved. This Web portal explores the fascinating life story of Joe Kinyoun, the acknowledged Father of NIH, and the crucible of social, scientific, and political forces during his time that were associated with the dawn of the microbial era in the United States.

In the 1880s, boatloads of immigrants were heading towards America. Unknowingly, some were bringing with them cholera and other infectious diseases. Hoping to forestall pandemic cholera and yellow fever from being imported to America in the early 1880s, Congress authorized the Marine Hospital Service (MHS) to inspect passengers arriving on ships for signs of sickness.

MHS asked Assistant Surgeon Kinyoun, who later trained with European bacteriologist Dr. Robert Koch, to set up a bacteriological laboratory on New York’s Staten Island. Within months of setting up the one-room Hygienic Laboratory, Kinyoun used his microscope and newly developed research techniques to identify cholera in America. The Hygienic Laboratory went on to become the first national laboratory in the United States dedicated to improving public health.

Public health workers checking immigrants arriving to the United States for signs of illnes. Credit: National Library of Medicine, NIH

In 1891, the laboratory moved to Washington, DC. Research activities expanded to include production of antiserums for infectious diseases such as diphtheria, and vaccines for diseases such as rabies, biological products that were distributed widely. Kinyoun also advocated for safety testing and regulation of the production of these lifesaving biologicals. His pioneering efforts helped prompt MHS, the predecessor of the U.S. Public Health Service, to add medical research to its integral functions, which is how NIH began.

Today, NIH has grown from its modest origins to one of the world’s foremost medical research organizations. Headquartered on a 300-acre campus just outside Washington in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH now comprises 27 Institutes and Centers with an annual total budget of more than $30 billion. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of NIH, is the direct descendant of the Hygienic Laboratory.

Work in Dr. Kinyoun’s one-room Hygienic Laboratory. Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

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