Albany’s Wadsworth Lab

The Wadsworth Laboratory is one of the pre-eminent public health laboratories in the nation, and has been for almost 120 years.

The first lab was established in 1901 on Yates St., between South Lake Ave. and Quail St. Originally it was the Anti-Toxin Laboratory, and while it conducted research on a variety of pathogens, a main focus was development and production of large quantities of diphtheria and tetanus anti-toxin. The anti-toxin was derived from inoculated horses that were stabled and co-located with the lab. (Procedures requiring sterile processes were generally conducted at the Bender Laboratory, around the corner on South Lake Ave. next to the Dudley Observatory. )

Over time the neighbors complaints about the horses (and other animals) grew louder. Finally, a farm was obtained on Route 155 (State Farm Rd.) in Guilderland. Today it’s the site of the Griffin Lab. In 1914 the head of the lab, Herman Biggs, M.D. was tapped to become Commissioner of the NYS Dept. of Health. Biggs appointed Augustus Wadsworth, M.D. as head of the Lab. Wadsworth would remain in that position for 30 years until 1945.

Under the leadership of Wadsworth the Lab moved to New Scotland Ave. after the first World War, greatly expanded its staffing, and its areas of research and applied laboratory sciences. For decades it’s been on the forefront of medical, scientific and epidemiological discoveries.

Perhaps most well known is the breakthough discovery of Nystatin, the first drug in the world to effectively and safely treat fungal infections, identified by 2 women, Dr. Rachel Brown and Dr. Elizabeth Hazen (who were in their 60s at the time – never underestimate the power of older women) working for the Lab.

Which brings us to a little known aspect of the Lab. Dr. Biggs and Dr. Wadsworth were both in the forefront of hiring women when others labs would not. If you look at the pictures of the earliest days of the Lab there are many women on staff. In later years staff rosters show a preponderance of female staff, including many in supervisory and management positions.

Dr. Wadsworth is revered for his pioneering work in creating rigorous laboratory standards used across the country, his focus on improving health care for NYS residents and for fostering the highest level of scientific research and inquiry; the reasons the Labs are named after him today.

The Lab is now the Wadsworth Center, with 3 locations: the Empire State Plaza, New Scotland Ave., and Guilderland, and carries on the tradition. It remains one of the most well-respected labortaories in the nation/ We’re lucky in New York State to have this resource.

(Most photos courtesy of the New York State Dept. of Health.)

Julie O’Connor

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