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Founding the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine (AITM)

The Anglican Bishop of North Queensland, Dr George Frodsham, first promoted the idea of a local institute for the study of tropical medicine. Tropical diseases including filariasis and malaria and fevers including Dengue severely affected workers and communities in his diocese. His proposal gathered support from the Medical Superintendent of the Townsville Hospital and eventually the Deans of Medicine of the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. The Institute of Tropical Australian Medicine was adopted in 1908. The Colonial Office (in the UK) contributed £400 (Sterling), Sydney University £150, Melbourne University £100 and Adelaide University £50. Major funding for the establishment came from a private benefactor, W K D’Arcy of Rockhampton, who contributed £1,000.

Dr Anton Breinl – Director

AITM’s first director, Dr Anton Breinl, arrived in Townsville on 1 January 1910. He was one of the most promising medical scientists then working in Britain. He had discovered an organic arsenical cure for sleeping sickness in 1904 while working at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool – a discovery that was later exploited by Ehrlich to produce salvarsan for the treatment of syphilis. Born in Vienna, Dr Breinl had studied at the University of Prague.

With laboratory assistant, John Fielding, Breinl started work in a wardsman’s buildling in the grounds of Townsville Hospital. In 1912, John Nicol, Henry Priestley and William Young joined as staff. This initiated the discipline of laboratory science in Australia, and saw Townsville become the birthplace of Australian biochemistry. Laboratory and research facilities were eventually housed in the purpose-built AITM building in 1916 with laboratory, darkroom and animal house.

Portrait of Dr Anton BreinlBreinl was initially tasked with finding ways to maintain and improve the health of the people working in tropical Queensland. The agenda later expanded to include tropical medical courses, population studies and numerous field trips into outback Queensland, the Northern Territory and remote regions of Papua New Guinea to study diseases such as yaws. His major research in Australia was pioneering work into the physiology and biochemistry of Europeans living in the topics.

Although the establishment of the AITM was a landmark event, it met with some local resistance. There was resentment an 'outsider' had been brought in to a position that some believed could have been filled by an Australian. With the outbreak of WW1 (1914-1918) and post-war racial intolerance, Dr Breinl’s position became increasingly difficult, despite him being naturalized in 1914, and this led to his resignation in 1920. He remained in Townsville in successful private practice and died in Sydney in 1944. View the entry for Anton Breinl in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

AITM Building

Original AITM building in 1913

The Institute gained Commonwealth funding to construct a building on the Townsville hospital grounds at North Ward. Built in the northern Queensland style with broad, enclosing verandahs, the building was completed in 1913 and still stands today. It is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.

Closure of AITM

After Dr Breinl's resignation, the Institute saw a succession of directors until 1923 when Dr Raphael Cilento became director for five years. Between 1920 and 1930 there was less emphasis on research work and more placed on commercial pathological testing. This change saw the income of the Institute increase dramatically, but a decline in the number of scientific papers produced. AITM closed in Townsville in 1930 and was incorporated into the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The School was abolished in 1980.