Home National museum Early Montana Lab presented at the National Museum

Early Montana Lab presented at the National Museum


A century ago, in the Bitterroot Valley, scientists from the U.S. Public Health Service battling Rocky Mountain spotted fever left their small facility in Victor, MT, for a school west of Hamilton. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Ricketts Lab, the NIH History Office and the Sletten Museum in Bethesda, Maryland has a great online presentation with plenty of historical photos.

The lab began research in 1921, likely September 20, continuing Victor’s tick studies, which had lasted since 1912. The lab operated until 1928, when the much larger Rocky Mountain Laboratories campus was brought to life. opened on South 4th Street in Hamilton. The National Institutes of Health laboratory has continued to operate and has grown since then. Rocky Mountain Laboratories is part of the NIH NIAID.

The Schoolhouse Lab building has been renovated, eliminating its top floor. Then, in 1995, the interior was transformed into a community theater by the Hamilton Players, who also added rooms to include a larger stage and lobby. It’s very different today (photo below).

The online site features information on the early days of the discovery of a vaccine against Rocky Mountain spotted fever, spread by ticks in the Bitterroot Valley and elsewhere. The vaccine was first used in 1924 when Dr. Roscoe Spencer was inoculated. Before the vaccine, the disease had an 80% death rate.

There are over 80 photos included in the presentation. Michele Lyons, associate director and curator of the NIH Museum, said there were three main reasons for the exhibit. In a press release, she said, “First, the school lab was really the start of RML. The people there developed a vaccine against such a deadly disease when they didn’t even know molecular biology or had a lot of technology. Second, all the effort arose out of cooperation. There were state and federal governments at the organizational level, and entomologists and physicians at the professional level. Finally, the excellent cache and some raw photos showing their research and how they made the vaccine brought the project to life.

The entrance to the old laboratory is not used as much today. (Steve Fullerton, Townsquare Media)

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