News Release

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Researchers chronicle the triumphs and tribulations of NIH founder

In the annals of medicine, Joseph J. Kinyoun, M.D., is a key figure, but one whose name many people have never heard. In 1887, as a physician in the Marine-Hospital Service (MHS) — the precursor to today's U.S. Public Health Service — Dr. Kinyoun founded the Hygienic Laboratory on Staten Island, N. Y., to diagnose cholera, plague, smallpox and other diseases that posed significant threats to public health at the time. In this one-man, one-room laboratory Dr. Kinyoun laid the foundation for what today are 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health. However, few people recognize Dr. Kinyoun's legendary contributions or the hardships he endured as a result of his work. In a review published in the current issue of the journal mBio, two NIH researchers aim to change that.

“Dr. Joseph Kinyoun was a central character in shaping the medical research enterprise of today,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., co-author and director of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “Before disciplines such as microbiology and epidemiology emerged, Kinyoun used his ingenuity to discover creative ways to save lives and improve health. His advances against infectious diseases of his era; his collaborations with and mentoring of other leading scientists; and his design of new laboratory equipment and techniques all helped spark national support for U.S. investment in biomedical research.”

Co-author David M. Morens, M.D., an epidemiologist and senior adviser to Dr. Fauci, led the effort to dig deep into the historical record to uncover previously untold stories that enrich Dr. Kinyoun's legacy.

Part of this legacy involves an 1899 MHS assignment that took Dr. Kinyoun to San Francisco to prepare for the anticipated emergence of plague in the United States. Instead, he became a scapegoat. Plague, at that time the most feared pandemic disease, had been spreading across the world, and health authorities believed it would enter the United States by ship, with San Francisco as a likely entry point. From the start, Dr. Kinyoun met resistance in San Francisco from business leaders and California politicians, all concerned that federal interference would hurt the economy and stir up public fear. For two years, Dr. Kinyoun headed efforts to improve city sanitation, prepare quarantines and minimize the potential for the spread of plague when and if it was introduced in the United States. When he confirmed the first U.S. case of plague in California in March 1900, the governor of California alleged that Dr. Kinyoun fabricated the information, California legislators called for his hanging, and local residents fought against quarantines. Two months later, with 11 plague cases confirmed and many more suspected, Dr. Kinyoun, with the support of President William McKinley, declared an epidemic. Opponents of the MHS rebelled by placing a $7,000 bounty on Dr. Kinyoun's life, forcing him to carry a loaded pistol for his own protection. Later, the governor accused Dr. Kinyoun of starting the plague epidemic by planting the bacterium on cadavers.

Dr. Kinyoun had many opportunities to fight his detractors and clear his name, but instead he remained patient, continued his work — sometimes under an alias — and eventually was exonerated. By 1904, 121 people in San Francisco had been diagnosed with plague, and nearly all of them had died.

“He liked to be a behind-the-scenes guy and a team player,” said Dr. Morens, explaining why Dr. Kinyoun willingly accepted blame. “He loved the give-and-take and collegiality of team efforts and did not have a need to take charge. That role made him the perfect scapegoat — a fact he understood and accepted.”

One of Dr. Kinyoun's greatest accomplishments, helping to refine and distribute a diphtheria antitoxin in the United States in 1894, also came with great hardship. In 1883, the first patient Dr. Kinyoun lost as a physician died of diphtheria, an event that led him to consider quitting his practice. Five years later, his first child, Bettie, died of diphtheria at age 3. Although he never fully recovered emotionally from these losses, Dr. Kinyoun poured himself into his work against the disease.

“We should never forget the perspective that Dr. Kinyoun brought to the role of scientist: a sense of wonder and the pursuit of substantive answers,” said Dr. Morens.

NIAID conducts and supports research — at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide — to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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