QIMR Berghofer pioneer recalls early research spirit

A year after the doors of QIMR Berghofer swung open for the first time in June 1947, Ian Cook took his first steps into the Institute. He stayed for nearly two decades.

This is the amazing story of the very earliest days of medical research in Queensland.

Ian Cook was just 17-years-old when he started at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) as a cadet. The now 92-year-old recalls in remarkable detail its humble beginnings and the incredible role he and his colleagues played in laying the foundations of medical research in the State and responding to the health crises of the time.

“It was very exciting, our aim was to investigate the fevers of Queensland,” Ian said.

“We were investigating things like north Queensland tick typhus, scrub typhus, and leptospirosis. I used to do tests on toxoplasma and had a role in looking for various fevers in the specimens sent down from north Queensland,” he recalls.

Leptospirosis was known as ‘the cane cutters curse’, a bacterial infection most commonly picked up walking barefoot through muddy cane fields. Scrub typhus came from a mite, Trombicula deliensis, found in densely vegetated areas, while dengue fever was mosquito-borne and carried specifically by Aedes aegypti.

When Ian first came on board there were just seven staff including the Director, Deputy-Director, and a librarian. His salary was 163 pounds a year.

Far from the modern laboratories housing today’s researchers the building was a mere hut located in Victoria Park, near the Medical School and Brisbane Hospital. It had been occupied by US Armed Forces during World War II and was constructed mainly of fibro and glass.

“When we started in the hut, it was only supposed to be temporary, for a few years,” Ian said.

“Rations were in place for everyday items like tea, sugar, butter, clothing and petrol, so to furnish the hut, office furniture was acquired through Army disposals.”

Ian was working toward a science degree but as a cadet he started at the bottom. His duties included washing and sterilising equipment which he didn’t mind a bit.

“The more experience I got, the more work they gave me and the work was published to gain my Master of Science. I would have contributed 24 papers or co-authored papers while I worked at QIMR.

“As cadets we were given time off during the day to study one subject of our science degree and at night we’d do another subject. So many exciting things occurred, it’s hard to pick out the best ones!”

While the work areas of the hut were developed in about five different stages, no one could have envisioned it would be home to Queensland’s premier medical research body for nearly 30 years.

The extraordinary early achievements of Ian and his colleagues are certainly testament to the words of QIMR Berghofer instigator Dr Edward Derrick, who purported “the most important requisite for research is not the building, nor the equipment, but the research worker.”

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