Monday, 14 December 2015

Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine

The first medical research institute in Australia was established by the Commonwealth government in Townsville in 1910. Under the Directorship of Dr Anton Breinl, the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine’s formal function was to further medical knowledge of tropical diseases and to study the effects of the northern Australian climate on the “white race”.

The Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, in the grounds of the Townsville Hospital, was officially opened on 28 June 1913.
Source:  U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Austrian-born Breinl was highly qualified to lead the Institute, having conducted field research into tropical diseases in Africa and Brazil. While researching on the Amazon River, he contracted yellow fever and almost died. Additionally, Dr Breinl and a colleague were credited with developing a treatment for African “sleeping sickness”, a parasitic infection transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly. Their treatment would become a building block for modern chemotherapy.

Breinl was at the height of his career when he arrived in Townsville on 1 January 1910. The Institute was set up in a modest, three-roomed building in the grounds of the Townsville Hospital that had formerly been a wardsman’s quarters.

Breinl, who described himself as a scientist, set about identifying the prevalence of diseases in north Queensland, and found that Dengue fever was common and hookworm infestation was prevalent, along with a certain amount of malaria. Other diseases such as typhoid fever and leprosy were also present.

With further backing from the Commonwealth government, plans for a new building were approved in 1912, and extra staff were appointed. Joining Breinl and his laboratory assistant were a parasitologist, a biochemist and a bacteriologist.
Official opening of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine in Townsville, 1913.
Anton Breinl is seated front row, second from left.
Photo: James Cook University.

The official opening of the Institute in June 1913 was attended by a veritable who’s who of the Australian medical profession. At this time, the White Australia Policy was still very much a driver of national policy, which accounts for Queensland Governor Sir William MacGregor’s remarks at the official opening:

“Tropical diseases, although important, occupy only a second place, and the main problem is whether conditions of heat and light will permit the establishment of a working white race,” Sir William said.

“The policy of reserving Tropical Australia as a home for a purely white race is one of the greatest and most interesting problems of modern statesmanship,” he said.

“A final proof of whether this is practicable, time alone will furnish.”

“It is a matter of common knowledge that a considerable number of white men have lived and worked for many years in inland Tropical Australia, and have enjoyed good health even under conditions that had been by no means favourable.”

However, not everyone was pleased to have the Institute located in Townsville. One of the medical men present at the opening of the facility, Professor Anderson Stuart, told the Sydney Morning Herald on his return from Townsville that while he supported the Institute, he felt that it should have been established in Sydney.

“I am still of the opinion I have always held, that Sydney would have been a better place for the Institute than Townsville,” Professor Stuart said.

“There are many scientific laboratories, libraries, and scientific men here, so that the facilities for the work of a scientific Institute would have been very great, whereas in Townsville there is nothing of the sort,” he said.

In 1930, the Institute closed in Townsville and became part of the University of Sydney, though it was re-established in Townsville in 1987 at James Cook University.

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