It All Started With A Few Test Tubes

There are few if any departments at any hospital that do not depend on laboratory services to be able to function safely, efficiently and effectively. But “laboratory services” have changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time.

Lab tech hand

The function of laboratory services was first provided at the Royal Columbian Hospital in 1918, but it was not done on site. Mr. Gooding, a bacteriologist, was contracted at the rate of $30 per month, and worked at his laboratory at the Public Hospital for the Insane. His lab work consisted primarily of analysing specimens using only a few test tubes, reagents and a microscope.

The lab at Royal Columbian Hospital itself began in 1920 in a vacant room in the basement of the 1912 building. Mr. Louis A Breun was appointed as Chief Bacteriologist to manage the laboratory, X-ray and pharmacy departments with the assistance of one technician – Miss Isobel Barr.

Sixteen years later, the following article appeared in The British Columbian, Royal Columbian Hospital 75th Anniversary Edition, 1937.

Fine Laboratory Built Up During 16 Year Period

One of the proudest assets of the Royal Columbian Hospital is the up-to-date laboratory, started with a few test tubes 16 years ago by L.A. Breun, chief bacteriologist and gradually built up by him into the very complete and efficient department it is today. It is the lab that diagnoses thousands of cases by testing blood, tissues or fluids taken from a sick patient.
Mr. Breun is assisted by Miss I. Barr, technician, and shortly the laboratory will be expanded and the quarters doubled. The basal metabolism department will be extended and Mr. Breun will be given additional assistants.
The laboratory may handle between 650 and 800 cases every month, some specimens requiring numerous special tests.
Since the laboratory was started, Mr. Breun has handled 32,023 pathological tests. These are not the routine tests, which run into a large number more. In the past five years, the number of monthly tests made in the lab have doubled. Besides tests for germs and tests of cultures, Mr. Breun does section work, such as studying tissues for cancer and so forth.
In addition to all sorts of pathological and routine hospital tests the department makes any tests required by the city department of health, such as tests of milk and water and for infectious diseases.
In 16 years the department has gradually acquired a fine array of microscopes, culture incubators and similar equipment. Mr. Breun has also accumulated an unusually complete range of pathological exhibits and a fine library.”

As the hospital grew, so did the need for a histological department and in 1948, Dr. P.S. Rutherford became the first permanent pathologist at RCH. He had a staff of 8, including himself, 6 technologists and 1 stenographer. Eventually, in 1952 the lab moved from the basement to the top floor of the old wing of the 1912 building, and included a training school for technologists.

The concept of a Regional Laboratory Service was introduced in the mid-50s, and the role of a lab technologist began to change with automated equipment and computers becoming a standard part of the work.

Would Adrian Breun or Isobel Barr recognize any of the equipment in a hospital laboratory today? What would they make of the partial list of procedures available from Outpatient Laboratory Services at Royal Columbian Hospital that includes “blood and urine collection for chemical analysis to determine glucose/lactose tolerance, cholesterol level, HDL/LDL and triglyceride level, and blood gas analysis; sweat chlorides, bone marrow testing, H. pylori breath tests, fine needle aspirates, coagulation testing and endocrine simulation tests?

Diane Oberg RCH Lab Technologist 1998

Diane Oberg RCH Lab Technologist 1998

They might well wish that they could have been part of the exciting and complex world of laboratory medicine of 2012, but without the groundwork they and others did in the first half of the 20th century, none of today’s services would be possible.

They would certainly have been impressed if they had seen the full double rainbow on December 4, 2012 clearly indicating that RCH really is worth its weight in gold!

Double rainbow Dec 4, 2012 over Royal Columbian Hospital. Courtesy of A Sense of History Research Services.

Double rainbow Dec 4, 2012 over Royal Columbian Hospital. Courtesy of A Sense of History Research Services.

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