The NIH traces its roots to 1887, when a one-room laboratory was created within the Marine Hospital Service (MHS), predecessor agency to the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). The MHS had been established in 1798 to provide for the medical care of merchant seamen. One clerk in the Treasury Department collected twenty cents per month from the wages of each seaman to cover costs at a series of contract hospitals. In the 1880s, the MHS had been charged by Congress with examining passengers on arriving ships for clinical signs of infectious diseases, especially for the dreaded diseases cholera and yellow fever, in order to prevent epidemics. During the 1870s and 1880s, moreover, scientists in Europe presented compelling evidence that microscopic organisms were the causes of several infectious diseases. In 1884, for example, Koch described a comma-shaped bacterium as the cause of cholera.
Officials of the MHS followed these developments with great interest. In 1887, they authorized Joseph J. Kinyoun, a young MHS physician trained in the 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 German facilities 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 in suspicious cases and used his Zeiss microscope to demonstrate it to his colleagues as confirmation of their clinical diagnoses. "As the symptoms . . . were by no means well defined," he wrote, "the examinations were confirmatory evidence of the value of bacteria cultivation as a means of positive diagnosis." For another photo of Dr. Kinyoun, see the NIH Almanac.
It is impossible to list all of the discoveries made by NIH-supported investigators. More than eighty Nobel prizes have been awarded for NIH-supported research. Five of these prizes were awarded to investigators in the NIH intramural programs. The in-house discoveries have included breaking the genetic code that governs all life processes, demonstrating how chemicals act to transmit electrical signals between nerve cells, and describing the relationship between the chemical composition of proteins and how they fold into biologically active conformations. In turn, these basic research discoveries have led to greater understanding of genetically based diseases, to better antidepressants, and to drugs specially designed to target proteins involved in particular disease processes. Long-term research has dispelled preconceptions that morbidity and dementia are a normal part of the aging process. Some cancers have been cured and deaths from heart attack and stroke have been significantly lowered. Research has also revealed that preventive strategies such as a balanced diet, an exercise program, and not smoking can reduce the need for therapeutic interventions and thus save money otherwise expended for health care.
In 1887, Dr. Joseph Kinyoun could hardly have imagined the size and scope of the NIH's present program. As a result of the numerous scientific opportunities and policy decisions that make up the historical fabric of the NIH, this premier medical research institution is poised to foster even more significant contributions to human health in the twenty-first century.
Office of NIH History