Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs

Postcard 267: Iowa City’s Century-Old Germs Lab

   hygienic lab


Retired director William Hausler and current director Mary Gilchrist flank a proposed $30 million replacement 
State Hygienic Laboratory facility. The lab, which offers important services which impact state and national 
public health, currently is housed in space built as the Oakdale Tuberculosis Hospital.


By Bob Hibbs


If bitten by a rabid dog somewhere in Iowa a century ago, a person might have boarded a train with the dog’s head in a bag bound for the State Hygienic Laboratory in downtown Iowa City.

Time is critically important in successfully treating the disease; each hour puts a victim closer to being untreatable. Sending a sample to Iowa City for analysis wasn’t an option since the local physician couldn’t offer treatment provided only in Chicago – until it was offered in Iowa City beginning in 1909.

In every major public health concern today – from infectious and communicable diseases like West Nile virus, aids or flu to water and air quality or infant health – 235 people at this little-known facility now using the former Oakdale Tuberculosis Hospital are front line offensive players.

They often provide important data to public health officials nationwide.

They’re planning and working for a new facility, but retired director William Hausler is cautious since twice before new buildings have been planned for the lab during its century of existence. The others never materialized.

Current quarters were built in seven stages dating back three-quarters of a century as reinforced concrete boxes intended to house patients in small rooms – or outdoors. Low ceilings make installation of large lab equipment nearly impossible and horribly expensive. Air handling is an engineering nightmare.

Samples frequently must be carted back and forth along city-block-long halls as they’re moved from receiving through testing, analysis and cleanup. A proposed replacement actually is smaller than current space; but, it would be far more efficient in keeping analysts at the lab bench, rather than at superfluous tasks now necessary.

A 1901 fire destroyed the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine building on Pentacrest, resulting in a replacement catty-cornered across the Jefferson-Dubuque streets intersection from the First Methodist Church in central Iowa City. Later called the Zoology Building, it now serves as biological sciences labs.

Two second-floor rooms in the northwest corner of that 1904 structure became home to a creature of the state legislature made a permanent UI entity, first within the College of Medicine, now as a separate service.

For a century, the lab has forged milestones in diagnostic techniques and public health outreach.

Its directors from founder Henry Albert (1904-21) to Don Griswold (1921-27), Albert Hardy (1927-30), Milford Barnes (1930-43), Irving Borts (1943-1964), Hausler (1964-1995) and currently Mary Gilchrist reads like a who’s who of the leadership of public health in Iowa and nationally.

The National Center for Disease Control calls regularly for data and counsel.

The UI lab’s uniqueness is its existence in an academic setting, free from pressures most state labs experience as part of public health departments in state government. Only the University of Wisconsin provides its lab a comparable environment in Madison.

Among the most widely publicized work of the lab is water testing for illness-causing bacteria and harmful chemicals like nitrates. It tests every child born in Iowa for a litany of treatable disorders. Public beaches receive its testing for health problems, as do air samples statewide.

Its detective work when people anywhere in Iowa get sick after eating at a particular spot, or attending a specific event, is highly regarded as prompt, shrewd and thorough. It often trains people afterwards to help prevent reoccurrence.

Likewise, spotting and quickly reporting outbreaks of communicable diseases anywhere in Iowa is an important function. The lab alerts physicians statewide to the presence of threats to public health, thus aiding quicker diagnosis and thus more effective treatment.

Reducing the scope of epidemics results in huge savings in treatment expense and lost work days.

“The lab works mostly out of the public eye,” comments Hausler, a former University Heights council member. “But, its goal of a healthy population affects absolutely everyone.”

Next Saturday: Iowa City’s state fair of 1860.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

Return to Postcard Index