The Department of Bacteriology (1929-1965)

The Department of Bacteriology at the University of Melbourne dates from 1929 and a Chair in Bacteriology from 1934.

The establishment of the study and teaching of bacteriology at the University of Melbourne was driven by the impact of public health problems, both medical and veterinary, on the city of Melbourne.

The enormous expansion of the economy and of the population of Melbourne in the decades following the discovery of gold had occurred without adequate provision of pure water or waste management. "Marvellous Melbourne" had become "Marvellous Smellbourne", and typhoid and other diseases now known to be infectious were rife.

Issues of waste and water management came to a head during the Royal Commission into the Sanitary State of Melbourne, which issued its final report in 1891. During the Commission's hearings, Auguste de Bavay who had trained in bacteriology in Europe and who was researching and controlling the fermentative yeasts for a Melbourne brewery, caused a furore when he claimed to have isolated the causative organism of typhoid from Melbourne's water supply.

This was highly embarrassing for the water suppliers, the government,and the Royal Commission itself, which had not acted on a suggestion from a witness that the water supply from Yan Yean reservoir be properly examined.

A bacteriologist from Sydney, Oscar Katz, was brought to Melbourne to investigate the claims of de Bavay. In a newspaper illustration of the time, a man, almost certainly Katz, is shown at work in Allen's Department of Pathology, possibly the first bacteriological work at the University. He was unable to disprove the claims but was also unable to find evidence of typhoid.

After the Royal Commission, Allen travelled to Britain and Europe investigating further some of the issues raised by it. On his return, he wrote a series of reports for the Victorian Government, in one of which he recommended the establishment of a Bacteriological Institution to handle both investigative work and teaching of the discipline. The State Government, burdened with the effects of a serious financial slump and the demands of the infant Board of Works established to combat some of the sanitary deficiencies, declined to act.

In the meantime, Allen himself had acted, appointing to his Pathology Department staff, the very able Dr Thomas Cherry, a mature age University of Melbourne medical graduate with a strong interest in bacteriology.

School of Microbiology (1965-1997)

The School of Microbiology at the University of Melbourne was established in 1965 when the former Department of Bacteriology moved from the old medical school building (now, the southern part of the Potter Gallery complex) to the new medical complex near the corner of Royal Parade and Grattan St.

The title, "School of Microbiology" was justified on the grounds that it had two sections - the campus department and a sub-department at the Austin Hospital. At the time, the Austin's new Professor of Medicine, Austin Doyle, had argued strongly for a significant expansion of the hospital's Clinical Sciences building.

The Professor of Bacteriology, Syd Rubbo, bitterly opposed the founding of sub-departments (in three subject areas; pathology, microbiology and pharmacology) at the Austin, largely on the grounds of cost. When the three subjects were re-positioned into the third year of the curriculum in 1975, the rationale for the "School of Microbiology" designation was removed.

The title was revised to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in 1997.

Department of Microbiology and Immunology (1997-present)

The Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne was established to teach and conduct research in the areas of bacteriology, virology, immunology and biotechnology.

It houses the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit (MDU) and the Media Preparation Unit (MPU).

The Microbiological Diagnostic Unit (MDU) is a public health laboratory involved in microbiological diagnosis and surveillance. It monitors community health and preventive activities such as rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Media Preparation Unit (MPU) is a facility for producing microbiological culture media for assessing microbiological activity in food, water, dairy products, meat, industrial processes, and agricultural and veterinary enterprises.The unit's services are available to all businesses wishing to purchase culture media.

The department is one of the largest microbiological and immunological teaching and research centres in Australia. It incorporates 35 research groups as follows;- AIDS Immunology, Autoimmunity, Bacterial Genetics and Molecular Biology, Bacterial Pathogenesis and Vaccines, Bacterial Population Genetics, Epitope Discovery, Haloarchael Genetics, Herpesvirus Immunobiology, HIV Vaccines, Immunology of Diabetes, Influenza Virus Immunology and Vaccines, Microbial Ecology, Pathogenesis and Molecular Biology of Bacterial Infections, Molecular Virology, Mycobacteria, Natural Killer Cell Biology, NKT cell development and function, Rotavirus Pathogenesis and Immunity, and Synthetic Vaccine Design.


This is an abstract of the history prepared by Ann Westmore for the Historical Compendium of the University of Melbourne Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. Much of this information was produced with the assistance of Dr Joc Forsyth.

The history has been published by the Centre for the Study of Health and Society, School of Population Health.

Professors: Past and Present