Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (MLPW) 2014, held April 20-26, offered yet another opportunity to honor the medical laboratory professionals and pathologists who play a vital role in every aspect of health care. MLPW is a time each year for medical laboratory personnel to celebrate their professionalism and be recognized for their efforts; another goal is to inform and educate medical colleagues and the public about the medical laboratory and the impact of these dedicated, skilled professionals have on the quality of overall patient care.
Because lab personnel often work behind the scenes, few people know much about the critical testing they perform every day. Fewer still have an understanding of the industry's long and proud tradition, dating back to the early 1900s. Following is a short history of the profession's beginnings, including profiles of several laboratory industry "pioneers." We honor their contributions and those of thousands of other laboratorians who took part in MLPW 2014.
History of the Profession
The medical laboratory profession formally began in the 1920s, following the invention and widespread use of diagnostic tools such as the microscope; prior to that most lab testing was performed by physicians. In the late 18th century, some medical professionals were even arguing that hospital labs were scientific "luxuries," requiring too much space and expense to administer, and that clinical tests were too time consuming to conduct. In a 1900 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Charles Nicoll Bancker Camac, Director of the Laboratory of Clinical Pathology at Cornell University, defended the need for hospital labs, refuting such popular misconceptions as patients might accidentally drink poisonous laboratory reagents, or staff members might appropriate laboratory apparatus for their personal use. Camac went on to suggest that "the maintenance of the laboratory can well be accomplished on $50 a year"!
Early laboratory technicians received on-the-job training under the direct supervision and tutelage of hospital pathologists. In 1928, the American Society of Clinical Pathologists established a standing committee called the Board of Registry whose purpose was to establish requirements for lab technician certification. In 1933, this group published a list of 34 accredited "schools." Most students entering these hospital-based programs were high school graduates. The earliest programs included those at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Texas.
Many of the pioneers of the profession in the America were actively involved in education, and helped to advance the profession by expanding academic programs dedicated to laboratory medicine. Following are some notable examples.
Lab Industry Pioneers
- Walter Reed (1851-1902), was born in Harrisonburg, Va., the youngest child of a family of five whose father was a Methodist minister. Reed studied medicine at the University of Virginia, obtaining his MD at the age of 18 -- the youngest medical graduate then known. A promotion to Captain in the U.S. Army brought him to Baltimore and gave him the opportunity to undertake further study at Johns Hopkins University.
(1880-1972), was born in Holmesville, Ohio. Her father and grandfather, both country doctors, valued and encouraged education for their children. After Carr graduated from high school, she entered Mount Holyoke College, a women's college in Massachusetts. After earning her PhD in 1910, she returned to Mount Holyoke to join the faculty.
In 1893, Reed was appointed curator of the Army Medical Museum and Professor of Bacteriology and Clinical Microscopy at the Military Academy in Washington. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he applied for active service and was posted for duty in Cuba, first to study typhoid and subsequently as Director of Yellow Fever Commission. In 1901 he led the team that postulated and confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by a particular mosquito species, rather than by direct contact. This insight gave impetus to the new fields of epidemiology and biomedicine, and most immediately allowed the resumption and completion of work on the Panama Canal (1904-1914) by the United States.
Sadly, one year after his return trip from Cuba, Major Reed died from peritonitis following an appendectomy performed by his friend, Major William C. Borden Major Borden, Commander of the Army General Hospital. Following Reed's death, Borden became dedicated to seeing the completion of a new hospital which would co-locate the Army hospital, the Army Medical School, the Army Medical Museum and the Surgeon General's Library. Borden was instrumental in naming the new hospital in the Nation's capital Washington, D.C. after his friend, Major Walter Reed.
Mount Holyoke had a long tradition of training women chemists, and Carr set out to make the program even stronger. She personally taught freshman general chemistry, a task that would normally have fallen to a junior instructor, so she could ensure the students' first exposure to chemistry was one that would impress and inspire. Even so, Carr felt that the influence of a good classroom teacher was not enough. Students, she believed, should be engaged in real, hands-on research in order to understand and appreciate how chemistry works. To this end, she initiated a research program at Mount Holyoke. Her work led to a better understanding of the nature of double bonds between carbon atoms in molecules.
- Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941), born in Charleston, S.C., was an African-American biologist and educator who pioneered many areas on the physiology of development, including fertilization, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells and ultraviolet carcinogenic radiation effects on cells.
During his university years at Dartmouth College, Just discovered an interest in biology after reading a paper on fertilization and egg development. He graduated as the sole magna cum laude student in 1907, also receiving honors in botany, sociology and history. Just's first job out of college was as a teacher and researcher at the traditionally all-black Howard University. Later, in 1909, he worked in research at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. He furthered his education by obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, where he studied experimental embryology and graduated magna cum laude.
"We feel the beauty of nature because we are part of nature and because we know that however much in our separate domains we abstract from the unity of nature, this unity remains. Although we may deal with particulars, we return finally to the whole pattern woven out of these." - Ernest Everett Just
Come So Far
Today, more than 300,000 medical laboratory professionals around the country perform and interpret some ten billion laboratory tests in the U.S. every year. Medical laboratory scientists analyze a wide array of test results and relay them to physicians and other members of the health care team. They perform complex tests, including chemical, biological, hematological, immunologic, microscopic and bacteriological, requiring expert training, and exceptional analytical skills.
Indeed, laboratorians play an increasingly vital role in the diagnosis and prevention of disease and are considered "a key member of a health care team," according to the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science." Lab testing has an estimated impact on over 70 percent of medical decisions, a percentage that will only grow as baby boomers retire and preventive coverage -- including screening tests performed by labs -- increases as part of federal healthcare reform.
Accordingly, the job forecast for MLS graduates is very positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment of medical laboratory scientists is expected to grow by 14 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. The volume of laboratory tests continues to increase with both population growth and the development of new types of tests."
MLPW is an event in which all laboratorians can participate. Many members plan displays, host open houses, talks at local schools, and various other activities in their institutions or local areas. Some labs obtain proclamations by mayors or governors, while others seek coverage of their many accomplishments on local TV and radio stations.
Whatever activities your lab plans each year, take MLPW Week and every week, to educate patients about the vital work of laboratories and the critical role they play on the healthcare team. All of us in in this industry -- including those who pioneered our way -- chose this profession for the same reason: to provide accurate test results, thus ensuring quality patient care. Share what you love about laboratory medicine, encourage more people to join us, and celebrate the great work we do each day!
Fun Facts About Medical Laboratory Science in the United States
- The North Port forensic laboratory in North Port Florida is the oldest forensics laboratory in the U.S, established in 1789.1
- Founded in 1919, Shiel Medical Laboratory is one of the oldest continuously operating clinical laboratories in the United States, and the largest privately held laboratory in New York.2
- In 1925, the University of Wisconsin General Hospital established one of the earliest laboratory training programs in the nation. Medical Technology became an undergraduate major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1936 and continued until the program's close in 2012.3
- The CLS program at the University of Minnesota is the oldest baccalaureate medical laboratory educational program in the United States, with the first students graduating in 1923.4
- The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) is the world's largest professional membership organization for pathologists and laboratory professionals. Their mission is to provide excellence in education, certification and advocacy on behalf of patients, pathologists and laboratory professionals across the globe. With more than 100,000 members, the society's influence has guided the application and evolution of the pathology and laboratory medicine specialty since 1922.5
- The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) -- previously the American Society for Medical Technology (ASMT) -- reflects our professional association's many contributions to the profession and practitioners in clinical laboratory science, organized in 1933 and incorporated in 1936.6
- Medical Laboratory Professionals Week originated in 1975 as National Medical Laboratory Week, or NMLW, under the auspices of the American Society for Medical Technology, now called the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS).7
Maria S. Hardy is a technical writer for COLA's Education subsidiary, COLA Resources, Inc. (CRI), a leader in online continuing education for physicians, laboratory personnel and allied health professionals. CRI offers continuing education through online courses, informational products in both electronic and hard copy form, webinars and workshops on cutting-edge technology and regulatory issues such as IQCP, and CRI Symposia for Clinical Laboratories and Workshops, providing live educational sessions and interactive seminars with leading industry organizations. For more information, visit their website at www.criedu.org, or call 1-800-981-9883.