Zadar’s Bacteriological Institute: Croatian Public Health As It Once Was

Total Croatia News

May 15, 2020 — Croatia has grown well-acquainted with its medical professionals and public health institutes. But what about their ancestors?

The National Archives in Zadar created a virtual exhibit of the town’s former Bacteriological Institute, a predecessor to the modern epidemiologists and public health apparatus. The slideshow and text is part of the joins the seventh festival of history – Kliofest.

Taken together, it chronicles the institute’s creation then nearly instant battles with a cholera outbreak. Many of its practices — of informing the public, communicating strategies — exist today.

Archivist Edi Modrinić organized the exhibition, bringing photographs and newspaper articles from the institute’s founding in the late 19th century to the end of World War II. 

The photos show sparse labs and researchers working in a sterile white environment.

The Bacteriological Institute was located within a military hospital, in the former monastery St. Nikola. It’s now the International Center for Underwater Archeology in Zadar.

The 19th century bred many scientific discoveries, especially in the fields of physiology, pathology, and microbiology. The changes eventually bred a sea change in health care. A chemical-bacteriological laboratory was founded in Zadar at the end of the 19th century to exploit these advances. It was led by a young doctor, Alfons Boara. It dissolved quickly, but local medical professionals saw a need for such a facility.

Dr. Božo Peričić in 1905, encouraged by a local cholera outbreak, publish a translation of a scholarly article about the need for public medical facilities and institutes in local paper Narodni List. Peričić — well known in local circles — “considered it worthwhile to translate it, because even in our circumstances, reading will be useful to everyone, and it may encourage our leaders to think and act more vividly in regard to some of the issues raised here.”

Looking out for the public good (and perhaps some more stable employment), Peričić asked the institute be revived to protect against typhus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and cholera. The diseases hit Zadar in waves throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the plague, making the Adriatic hub one of the world’s foremost authorities on mass quarantine.

“About ten years ago, such a laboratory was established on the Dalmatian governorate,” Peričić wrote. “Sure it was a start but definitely a good start. Envy and negligence quickly found themselves at work to destroy everything. The view of epidemics (dangers to which Dalmatia as a country by the sea is more exposed than others) and the view of the antimalarial struggle, the lack of a well-organized laboratory is a shame and damage from which other provinces do not suffer.”

The Bacteriological Institute’s second iteration opened in 1912, the first institution of its kind in Dalmatia.

They aimed to improve scientific efforts and control in the fight against epidemics and infections, and at the same time to educate future doctors. 

The institute was equipped with modern devices, materials, and resources, which can be seen in the photos. Among other things, it had ten study rooms that housed a hygiene department, a bacteriology department, an animal research room. In it, various diseases could be diagnosed by biochemical and microbiological methods, such as malaria. 

The institute turned into a hub of medical and serological innovation, including the first case of brucellosis or undulant fever.

The Dalmatian Governorate invested substantial sums of Vienna’s money into the institute to fund its research. 

After the First World War, the Institute continued to operate as the Laboratory of Hygiene and Bacteriology (Laboratorio di vigilanza igienica e batteriologica). About 600 bacteriological, chemical and bromatological tests were performed that year. 

The laboratory was led by bacteriologist Dr. Giovanni Venturelli, who led a lavish and well-equipped institute — in danger of closing due to lack of work. In 1923, the Ministry decided to close the laboratory only to be reopened again in 1934.

During the Allied bombing in World War II, the laboratory building was severely damaged, yet some laboratory equipment was preserved. A new chemical-bacteriological laboratory was opened on October 6, 1944 — the fourth version — in a small villa housing the naval command ambulance was located at the time. It remained underutilized until Zadar’s hospital opened. This final iteration of the laboratory is considered a parent to the Croatian Institute of Public Health — currently leading the charge against the coronavirus by Krunoslav Capak.


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