History of the National Institutes of Health

In 1887, the NIH began in Staten Island, New York, as a one-room federal laboratory within the Marine Hospital Service (MHS). At the time, it was called the Laboratory of Hygiene. The MHS was responsible for preventing the spread of infectious disease in the United States. For example, the staff at the MHS examined passengers on arriving ships for signs of communicable diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. By 1891, the federal government required the MHS to take on the additional responsibilities of developing and testing vaccines. That year, the service was relocated to Washington, D.C., and renamed the Hygienic Laboratory.

In 1902, Congress passed the Biologics Control Act to regulate vaccines sold in the U.S. This resulted in the Hygienic Laboratory adding divisions in chemistry, pharmacology, and zoology, all on a meager annual budget of $50,000. After ten years, this enterprise, now called the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), was further authorized to study chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, and cancer) and infectious diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, influenza, and malaria). Despite working with limited funds, its investigators made several remarkable medical discoveries during this period. For example, in 1920, Joseph Goldberger discovered that pellagra, a skin disease widely considered to be infectious, was in fact the result of a vitamin deficiency that could be prevented by proper nutrition.

In 1930, the Hygienic Laboratory became the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and by 1938 the unit had moved to a privately donated estate hygiene: cleanliness infectious diseases: diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or protozoa, which replicate inside the body cholera: bacterial infection of the small intestine causing severe diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration vaccine: medicine that promotes immune system resistance by stimulating pre-existing cells to become active chronic: over a long period heart disease: any disorder of the heart or its blood supply, including heart attack, atherosclerosis, and coronary artery disease diabetes: inability to regulate level of sugar in the blood cancer: uncontrolled cell growth tuberculosis: bacterial infection, usually of the lungs, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis malaria: disease caused by infection with Plasmodium, a single-celled proto-zoon, transmitted by mosquitoes nutrition: the maintenance of health through proper eating, or the study of same in Bethesda, Maryland. Today, this is the primary home of the National Institutes of Health.

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