In 1874, Dr. James Johnson, the City of Milwaukee's first health officer, established the first chemistry and microscopy laboratory to inspect milk and water for potential sources of disease. An expanded bacteriological and chemistry laboratory was relocated to the Metropolitan Block in 1893, while City Hall was under construction.
The laboratory's scope expanded further to include food safety, including an 1896 outbreak of 300-400 arsenic poisonings from bakers' flour. Also in 1896, the Health Department laboratory began daily analysis of the city's water. Scientists found the well water "contaminated to such an extent that it is unfit for drinking." Laboratorians also argued (rightly) that the 54 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into Lake Michigan each day contributed to the high typhoid fever rates in the city
In the first half of the 20th Century, the Health Department, including the lab, was located on the 6th and part of the 8th floors of City Hall at 200 E. Wells Street. by 1927, functions included detection and diagnosis of leading contagious and infectious diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery, scarlet fever, cerebrospinal meningitis, rabies, and venereal diseases. The laboratory also tested food, water, patent medicines and even natural gas to assure that it "was of constant and dependable heating value and as free as possible of compounds which, by combustion, produced substances deleterious to health."
By 1953, Milwaukee's was one of the first laboratories in the nation to investigate viral diseases. The immediate concern at the time was diagnosing influenza during the epidemic of 1952-1953, as well as researching polio, which made its devastating, periodic appearances during that era. The laboratory was also chosen to participate in a worldwide network to track influenza, and today remains part of the World Health Organization's Influenza Surveillance Network of approximately 110 labs in 83 countries. This network identifies circulating influenza types to select annual vaccine strains and provide early warning of epidemics and changes in the spread and impact of the disease.
Combating sexually transmitted diseases is another important function--in peace and war. During the Korean War, the laboratory processed almost 100,000 specimens for syphilis annually for draft induction centers.
In fall, 1959, the Health Department moved into the brand new Municipal Building at 841 N. Broadway. This much-needed expansion relocated the laboratory on portions of the second and third floors of the new building. This would be the laboratory's home for the next forty years.
During the 1970s the laboratory offered forensic services for drugs of abuse through federal grants and gonorrhea surveillance with state funding, processing more than 70,000 such specimens annually for several years. In 1976 the laboratory began sending weekly summaries of confirmed virus infections to Local physicians. Over 200 health care providers currently receive up-to-date information on "what's going around" in Milwaukee.