Approaching 150 Years of Service in Milwaukee
By Jody DeVoll , MAT , writer
One of the first public health laboratories in the United States was not established in a major East Coast city , but in what was then a small city of German immigrants — Milwaukee , Wisconsin . In 1874 , Dr . James Johnson , the City of Milwaukee ’ s first health officer , founded what was to become the Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory
( MHDL ) as a chemistry and bacteriology laboratory to inspect milk and water for potential sources of disease .
Over its formative years , MHDL expanded its services to include food , water safety and infectious diseases testing . In 1953 , MHDL became one of the first US clinical virology laboratories to investigate influenza , polio , rickettsial diseases and Q fever and received research funding from the National Institutes of Health . And as it prepares to celebrate its 150 th anniversary in two years , MHDL will host APHL 2024 .
Since 1959 , MHDL has occupied over 16,000 sq . ft . of the Zeidler Municipal Building in downtown Milwaukee . Though the laboratory has been completely rebuilt , the space is not adequate to meet current needs and funding for a new facility is a top priority for Laboratory Director and Special Deputy Health Commissioner Sanjib Bhattacharyya , PhD . Packed within its present footprint are a BSL-3 , molecular suites , chemistry , microbiology , virology and molecular science laboratories , and administrative and support services . MHDL also operates a satellite laboratory at the Keenan Health Center and provides STI , HIV and tuberculosis ( TB ) testing to support clinical and family planning services for central city residents .
While MHDL is mostly supported by tax levy dollars , individual programs are supported through a variety of funding streams :
• STI , HIV and TB programs are supported through Wisconsin Department of Health Services funds .
• CDC ’ s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity — Expansion and COVID-19 Enhancement funds and advanced molecular detection ( AMD ) funds for COVID-19 surveillance and applied research have enabled MHDL to expand next-generation sequencing and capcity .
• MHDL is also collaborating with UW-Madison , other Midwest partners and Thermo Fisher Scientific
in a Rockefeller Foundation
innovation grant to conduct air sampling for the SARS-CoV-2 in congregate settings . Currently air samplers are collected at COVID-19 shelters and daycares , and will be expanding to schools and airports .
Bhattacharyya built his career at MHDL ,
MHDL staff celebrate Public Health Laboratory Appreciation Month in September . Photo : MHDL
beginning as a senior microbiologist in 2002 and advancing to chief molecular scientist , sections chief , deputy director and now the public health laboratory director and special deputy health commissioner . However , public health was not his original career goal . As a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical College of Wisconsin
and on a clinical rotation at the Zablocki Veteran ’ s Administration Medical Center
, Bhattacharyya planned to pursue an academic career . But the unpredictability of academic funding led him to consider a public health career option . Bhattacharyya retains his association with academia as adjunct faculty at the UW-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health
, as a clinical associate professor at the College of Health Sciences
and lectures at Marquette University
Bhattacharyya credits APHL for his evolution as a leader . He has participated in APHL ’ s Emerging Leaders Program
, served on multiple APHL committees and is currently a member of the APHL board of directors . In addition , MHD staff and senior administrators have strongly supported his professional development .
MHDL ’ s 35 permanent staff typically work five days a week , eight hours per day . During the pandemic , the laboratory has operated seven days a week , 12-14 hours per day to support ever-increasing demands . To keep pace with COVID-19 PCR , sequencing and maintaining other laboratory services , MHDL has onboarded multiple temporary staff , including two
26 LAB MATTERS Spring 2022