Even the most successful careers can have their odd turns, as the story of Joseph James Kinyoun attests. His career began in the early days of modern infectious disease epidemiology. In the 1880s, researchers had begun to set up laboratories dedicated to the identification and isolation of microbiologic agents of disease. This movement started in Europe and quickly spread to the United States. In 1887, the Marine Hospital Service, forerunner of the U.S. Public Health Service, established a modest laboratory at its Staten Island hospital. Named the “Hygienic Laboratory,” it eventually developed into the National Institutes of Health.
The U.S. Surgeon General chose a recent appointee to the Public Health Service, one Joseph James Kinyoun, to direct the Hygienic Laboratory. Kinyoun had received his medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and had done postdoctoral work at the laboratories of Robert Koch in Berlin and Elie Metchnicoff at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He subsequently completed a PhD at Georgetown University.
On arriving at the Hygienic Laboratory, Kinyoun launched a number of bacteriologic investigations. He was the first in America to isolate the cholera vibrio from cases occurring in 1892. In 1894, he returned to the Pasteur Institute to study Emile Roux's technique for treating diphtheria with antitoxin. Once back at the Staten Island laboratory, Kinyoun organized training programs and played an important role in the nationwide dissemination of effective treatment of diphtheria, then a major cause of childhood mortality. After 12 successful years, Kinyoun was transferred (for reasons never revealed) to the quarantine station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
A year later, in 1900, Kinyoun identified an outbreak of plague in San Francisco's Chinatown population. When he tried to institute control measures, including a statewide quarantine, he was blocked by the Governor who vehemently denied the existence of an epidemic. After a “Blue Ribbon” Commission supported Kinyoun, the Governor struck a deal with the Surgeon General: the Service would be permitted to promote control measures, but the Commission's report would be suppressed and Kinyoun would have to go. Kinyoun was promptly transferred to Detroit. When he was later ordered to Hong Kong, he resigned.
Kinyoun subsequently became director of research for the H. K. Mulford Company (a leading manufacturer of pharmaceuticals), and later the Chairman of the Department of Pathology and Bacteriology of George Washington University Medical School, and Director of the Washington, DC, public health laboratory.
In a final twist of fate, Kinyoun mentored a medical student named Thomas Parran as a summer intern at the Washington, DC, public health laboratory. Parran went on to become one of America's most influential Surgeon Generals, attributing his interest in public health to his work with Joseph Kinyoun—a man twice rejected but never embittered.