University of Manchester Public Health Laboratory

  • Reference
      GB 133 SPH/1
  • Dates of Creation
  • Physical Description
      4 series, 13 items

Scope and Content

This section largely comprises original and reproduction material relating to the administration of the Public Health Laboratory. It contains Delépine's typescript reports covering his years at the Laboratory until 1920, and reproductions of annual reports dating from the inception of the Laboratory and later for the University of Manchester Department of Bacteriology. It also contains reproductions of minutes and a small amount of published material relating to the foundation and history of the Public Health Laboratory. The section provides fairly comprehensive coverage of the Public Health Laboratory from its inception until 1936, and is particularly strong on the building and equipping of York Place Laboratory from 1904. For later years, the coverage is sporadic, but provides substantial information on staffing and on relations with Manchester Royal Infirmary and Manchester Corporation.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Public Health Laboratory (PHL) was founded by Professor Sheridan Delépine at Owens College in 1895. It was a pioneer in the application of bacteriological methods to public health issues. Prior to the establishment of the laboratory, bacteriological analysis had been undertaken on an ad hoc basis by individual practitioners and in small hospital laboratories. The late nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of bacteriological knowledge and techniques and this ad hoc provision was inadequate for a large city such as Manchester subject to a wide range of public health issues. Delépine himself came to Manchester in 1891 as professor of pathology, having worked in London as a pathologist. His recognised expertise in bacteriology led him to be actively involved with the bacteriological aspects of public health investigations administered by the Medical Officers of Health for Manchester and Salford. He conducted both routine tests and special investigations for public health authorities; he bore all the expenses himself and provided the equipment. This work was by necessity secondary to his teaching commitments to the College. Delépine recognised the importance of this bacteriological work, and firmly believed that the College was the correct place for such work, providing a symbiotic relationship between the health authorities who gained accurate diagnosis and the College which gained material for teaching and research. The 1893 cholera outbreak during which Delépine provided expert diagnostic services provided an impetus for the creation of the Bacteriological Laboratories with Delépine as director. Delépine was sanctioned by the University to undertake tests for local authorities as long as he accepted responsibility for the costs. 'This was one of the first instances in England of cooperation between the pathological laboratory of a University College and the Public Health Authorities of the District' (Valier p.71).

The Laboratory conducted a large number of investigations both routine and special. Routine tests included tests for tuberculosis, typhus and diphtheria, special studies were also conducted on anthrax, arsenic poisoning of beer and the effects of sewer gas. In the early years the Laboratory conducted tests for the health authorities in Manchester, Salford and Stockport, but soon expanded to provide services for health authorities across the North West and for the Manchester Medical and Pathological Societies. This public health reporting work was essentially a private concern and was largely funded by Delépine until 1902, when the Bacteriological Laboratory became the Public Health Department of Owens College. This new department, which became known as the Public Health Laboratory, had an advisory committee, was under the directorship of the professor of pathology, and the Laboratory was transferred to better accommodation in Stanley Grove (near the current MRI). In 1903, the chair of pathology was split into two chairs, one for pathology and morbid anatomy and the other for comparative pathology and bacteriology. The latter post (who was in the first place Delépine) was connected with the Public Health Department. It was primarily concerned with teaching, but also engaged in research and bacteriological investigation. There was always tension between the requirements for education and research of a University Department, and the demands of providing a large bacteriological service. However, the Laboratory combined these roles with some success until the Public Health Laboratory Service was opened at Monsall Hospital in 1950 and the University Department was able to commit itself to teaching and research. The success of the Laboratory was largely due to Delépine's personal commitment, his investment of time, ideas and money enabled the laboratory to become a success.

In 1904, the PHL transferred to York Place, where purpose built laboratories provided facilities for municipal and private investigations, teaching and research, and a bacteriological museum and library. The early twentieth century saw rapidly increasing quantity of investigation work and increasing numbers of students, many of whom went on to important public health posts. The PHL became widely regarded and gave advice to those wishing to establish similar institutions. However, the expansion of the Laboratory was not reflected in an expansion of budget. Despite substantial commitment from Delépine and other staff, the PHL was forced to rely for income increasingly on routine work rather than on teaching or research. The Laboratory forged close links with Manchester Corporation - Manchester's Public Health Analyst was based in the Laboratory and the bacteriological and chemical sections became essentially municipal institutions within the University Public Health Department. It was not officially connected to any hospitals, but developed a close working relationship with Manchester Royal Infirmary. Delépine's intention to found an academic basis for bacteriology was undermined by his reliance on income from routine work for local authorities.

The significance of Delépine's role was shown in the changes in the Department of Public Health after his death in 1921. He was followed as professor of bacteriology and director of the laboratory by William Topley, who was anxious about the commercialisation of pathology and wanted bacteriology taught as pure science. In 1922 the Department changed its name from Public Health to Bacteriology and Preventive Medicine, with an emphasis on the academic side of activities, helped by funding from the Medical Research Council. Routine work for private practitioners was discontinued, although work for public authorities continued to play a substantial role in the Department, which was still known as the Public Health Laboratory. Topley was replaced by Hugh Maitland in 1926, who continued to develop the academic side. In 1927, the routine section of the Department was organised as a special unit, which from 1940 was associated with the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service of the Ministry of Health and the Medical Research Council. In 1946 the University created a new department of preventive medicine, while the routine work of the PHL continued as the Department of Bacteriology. With the advent of the NHS, routine diagnostic public health services were divided between Public Health Laboratory Service at Monsall Hospital and the Regional Hospital Board at Withington Hospital. The University of Manchester Public Health Laboratory closed and much of its equipment was transferred to Monsall. The Monsall Laboratory moved to Withington Hospital in 1964. The University of Manchester still taught the Diploma of Public Health but no longer engaged in routine laboratory work.


SPH/1 has been organized into the following four series:

  • SPH/1/1 Delépine reports on Public Health Laboratory.
  • SPH/1/2 Reproduction annual reports.
  • SPH/1/3 Reproduction minutes and correspondence.
  • SPH/1/4 Printed material.