AITHM James Cook University

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Tropical health research has a long history in northern Queensland, beginning in 1910 with the establishment of Australia’s first institute for tropical medicine in Townsville.

James Cook University’s commitment to tropical health, medical research and public health training dates from the 1980s. With the founding of AITHM at James Cook University in 2013, Australia again has a dedicated institute based in the tropics to focus on finding solutions to disease and health care in the tropics.  

The early years 

Original AITM Building in Townsville.In 1910 the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine (AITM) was founded in Townsville. Its establishment arose from concerns for the health of workers and communities in northern Australia. Dengue fever was rife and other debilitating diseases were affecting the population. Under the leadership of its first director, the pioneering Dr Anton Breinl, the Institute’s agenda expanded, drawing on field trips around northern Queensland, the Northern Territory, the Torres Strait and remote regions of Papua New Guinea.

AITM was Australia’s first medical institute and Dr Breinl’s groundbreaking work with his small team of researchers initiated laboratory science in Australia and made Townsville the birthplace of Australian biochemistry. AITM closed in 1930. Read more about the history of AITM and Dr Anton Breinl.

Tropical health at James Cook University

There is a long association between JCU and the name of Anton Breinl.

JCU re-established the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine in 1987, after the Kerr White Report into research, public health and tropical health recommended such a facility was needed. The Institute was briefly named the Tropical Health Surveillance Unit before becoming the Anton Breinl Centre for Tropical Health and Medicine and later being incorporated into JCU’s Department of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. JCU developed a distinguished record in tropical health research, with a focus on infectious diseases and the health of tropical populations. AITHM’s research builds on these strong epidemiological and public health foundations.

In 2002 JCU’s Department of Public Health and Tropical Medicine was renamed the Anton Breinl Centre and all staff relocated from the original AITM building at the Townsville hospital to a purpose-built facility on the medical precinct at the Townsville campus. In 2012-13 the Centre changed its name to the Discipline of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

JCU broadened its tropical health facilities and research partnerships in 2009 with the founding of the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance (QTHA), a Queensland Government initiative based at JCU. Funded by the Queensland Smart State Innovation Building Fund and with matching partner funds, QTHA brings together health research facilities and expertise from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, James Cook University, the University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University. QTHA established new research facilities at JCU including an insectary, physical containment laboratories and high throughput molecular diagnosis and genotyping facility. 

In 2013 JCU became home to the newly formed Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), taking on the mantle of the original AITM as a national institute for tropical health research. The name of Anton Breinl lives on at JCU with the Anton Breinl Research Centre for Health Systems Strengthening, founded in 2015. The Centre’s research and programs are aimed at strengthening health and health systems in rural, remote, tropical and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with a range of partner organisations.

Foundation of AITHM

AITHM was formally established in 2013 to improve Australia’s capacity and effectiveness in tropical health and medical research, training and translation in northern Australia. The location of AITHM within a research-intensive university, located in and dedicated to the tropics, enables AITHM to leverage existing intellectual capital, build research capacity and apply evidence to address real challenges and priorities in health and medicine relevant to people in the tropics worldwide.

Architect's drawing of new AITHM Building TownsvilleAITHM’s funding partners are the Queensland Government and the Australian Government’s Australian Research Council. Both entities committed $42.12 million to establish AITHM at James Cook University.

AITHM undertakes to work across areas of significant interest and importance in our tropical region including neglected tropical diseases, tropical public health, molecular diagnosis of pathogens and ways to improve the delivery of health services to rural and remote tropical communities. AITHM is commencing infrastructure projects at key sites including Townsville, Cairns and Thursday Island in the Torres Strait to attract world-class researchers.