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Health Laboratory History in Milwaukee

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.

Public Health Laboratories Today

Our new, state-of-the-art laboratory on the second floor of the Ziedler Municipal Building in 1999 provides equipment upgrades, meets federal laboratory safety guidelines, and incorporates design improvements for staff, equipment and computers.

While technology and the leading health threats have changed dramatically since the 1870's, the laboratory's unique focus on protecting the public's health is unchanged.  The core functions of a modern public health laboratory are:

  • Disease prevention, control and surveillance

  • Environmental health and protection

  • Food Safety

  • Integrating and interpreting lab data across the city's many healthcare systems

  • Reference and specialized testing

  • Laboratory improvement, regulation and polity development

  • Emergency response

  • Applied research

In 1993 the laboratory played a key role in detecting and unraveling Milwaukee's large waterborne Cryptosporidium outbreak. Prompt, accurate diagnosis was essential to minimize illness and mortality. Since then, the laboratory's Waterborne Pathogens Laboratory has been recognized as an international leader in detection and diagnostic methodology for Cryptosporidium, Giardia and waterborne viruses.  Several federal grants have supported the work of this program. The laboratory also leads a regional beach pollution consortium.  Laboratory personnel were invited to support a new EPA initiative to address beach pollution.

Recently the laboratory was selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection service to represent local public health laboratories in establishing national testing guidelines for the emerging foodborne pathogen E.coli O157:H7. The City Laboratory will be one of only eleven government labs nationwide to assist in this project, which is the first in an ongoing initiative to improve laboratory support for food safety.

The Chemistry Laboratory is critical to the work of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program of the Milwaukee Health Department, which is recognized as one of the most effective programs in the country.  Federal and state grants for lead poisoning intervention have provided staff and equipment for the laboratory.

In December of 1996, the laboratory went "live" with a fully functional Laboratory Information System. This has improved efficiency, decreased clerical errors, and allowed for real-time data evaluation to assist other programs in the Health Department with disease analysis and cause intervention.

Additional activities recently include addressing our community's preparedness for bio-terrorism and other emergencies. New molecular technology now allows more rapid, sensitive and accurate diagnosis of disease.  The laboratory has partnered with the State of Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene, sharing expertise and funding in evaluating and implementing new tests for the diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, Chlamydia and gonorrhea. Our new laboratory facility also meets standards for tuberculosis testing and working with toxic chemicals and hazards.

For the past decade the laboratory has provided guidance to small community-based labs that serve the uninsured and underinsured. This assurance activity assists those laboratories that may have minimal technical expertise but serve a growing population. Also, since the inception of a billing policy in 1989, the Bureau of Laboratories has charged fees for the tests performed for private agencies, generating approximately $2.5 million in revenue for the City.

Thanks to the vision and support of our local government leaders, City of Milwaukee lab personnel perform their duties in a safe, state-of-the-art facility. We can think of no better way to honor 125 years of innovative and quality service to our citizens.


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