The Birth of Bacteriology at the University of Washington

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It is probably not well-known that a 1907 outbreak of bubonic plague in Seattle served as the impetus for establishing in Seattle, during that same year, not only the State Board of Health, the Seattle City Laboratory, and the Plague Laboratory of the U.S. Public Health Service, but also, indirectly, the University of Washington Bacteriological Laboratory. The latter was established primarily to provide trained personnel for the rapidly growing new science of what was then called "bacteriology," the precursor to modern-day microbiology.

Professor John Weinzirl was placed in charge of the University Laboratory. He writes in "The Science of Bacteriology in the State of Washington" in a 1927 issue of The Washington Historical Quarterly:

Bubonic plague broke out in Seattle on October 1, resulting swiftly in the deaths of five persons before the cause was discovered. An unchecked epidemic of plague would have meant the paralysis of industry and commerce, and the loss of money and precious lives. The leaders in control of public health, Dr. E. E. Heg, State Commissioner of Health, and Dr. J. E. Crichton, Commissioner of Health for Seattle, lost no time in placing control of the epidemic in the hands of the experienced workers of the Federal Government. Dr. B. J. Lloyd and Dr. C. W. Chapin, Bacteriologists, of the United States Public Health Service, took charge of the control work, and not another single human death from plague occurred, although infected rats were occasionally found in the following seven years.footnote 1

A decade later, as the U.S. entered World War I, the number of students in the UW's fledgling bacteriology program increased sharply as the war created a critical need for trained personnel to help treat the ravages of war, from typhoid fever to tetanus and septicemia suffered by soldiers after being wounded. The enrollment had reached 50 majors and graduate students, many of who participated in internships in cooperating laboratories in the region during that time.

Research in those early days focused in part on the problems of tuberculosis and cancer. In 1925, Mrs. Josephine Patricia McDermott bequeathed $100,000 to the University of Washington for the study of those diseases. The money became available when the Alice McDermott Foundation was created with Dr. John Weinzirl as director. The income from this fund was supplemented by annual gifts from the Washington State Tuberculosis Association. Writes Weinzirl: "A considerable body of data has been secured and is being compiled for publication. Both scientific information and practical results are sought in this field of endeavor..."

Weinzirl concludes that in its first twenty years, bacteriology at the UW and throughout in the State "halted epidemics of bubonic plague, typhoid, diphtheria and other diseases; it has helped to save many lives in and out of hospitals; it has made water and food both safer and cleaner; it has enriched the soil so that two blades of grass may now grow where but one would grow before; and by these services it has made our beautiful State a better place in which to live."

  1. "The Science of Bacteriology in the State of Washington," John Weinzirl, The Washington Historical Quarterly, 1927.

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