The rapid industrialisation of post-war Yugoslavia engendered a growing need to establish an institution committed to occupational health issues. The Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health (IMI) was founded on 27 December 1947 following the initiative by Dr Andrija Štampar, president of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts (YASA) at the time. The mission of such a newly founded Academy’s institution, known then as the Institute for Industrial Hygiene, was based on the study of physical and biotic conditions of work and their harmful impact on health.
The activity of today’s Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health dates partially back to the pre-WWII era, almost eight decades ago.
The Institute for Protection Systems of the Zagreb City National Council (the former Civil Protection School of Zagreb as a branch of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s Army Navy’s institutions, founded in 1938 and introduced to the public in the presence of clerical, military and civil authorities of the time) was managed by Professor Božo Težak, PhD. Being an expert in colloid physico—chemical systems, gas masks, and mustard agents, as well as in evaluation of the impact of increased dead space in gas masks, from the very beginning of work of this important and unique institution in this part of the world he recruited associates from various technical disciplines to participate in a meticulously selected workflow of lectures; his associates held lectures and organised professional courses aimed at educating the general public but they also took part in the courses for professionals in the particularly complex field of civil protection. Famous architects and engineers, medical doctors such as A. Peičić (mayor of the City of Zagreb at the time), epidemiologists, academics A. Štampar and B. Kesić, head of the School of Public Health (SPH) D. Chloupek, chemical engineers (Nobel prize winner Vladimir Prelog), dean of Zagreb Technique Professor Njegovan, mathematicians and others were among his associates as early as in the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and then during World War II and several years later. Professor B. Težak and academic A. Štampar were associates who collaborated long before World War II in the journal VPS on the topics related to the activity of the Institute today.
The buildings of the School for Civil Protection were designed and constructed following the principles of modern building architecture of the time: they were made of concrete, glass, and steel, pursuing the steps of modern German, French, and Soviet architecture – it was envisaged as a kind of a “suburban summer villa”. It boasted state-of-the-art laboratory furniture provided by the company Thonet-Mundus (F. Bobić, Varaždin), a gas chamber, but it also displayed an interesting interior design concept, a delightful little library, a lecture theatre, and a movie theatre.
The buildings built on Ksaverska cesta, and their subsequent interpolations (B. Ivančević), besides serving as laboratories, a lecture theatre, a gas chamber, a demonstration channel for firefighting and a movie theatre, were also used as a dormitory by the Firefighting School.
In the aftermath of WWII, Professor B. Težak remained in touch with his former associates. He intended to convert the existing building from war-related purposes to peace-making, educational, and scientific ones, in affiliation with the University of Zagreb and he wrote an article on it.
Thanks to the initiative and selfless support of his long term associates, in particular academic Štampar (president of the YASA, rector of the University, dean of the School of Medicine and an employee of the School of Public Health), academic Z. Bujas (Ministry of Education of the National Republic of Croatia), a young internist-haematologist and academic T. Beritić, and occupational health specialists B. Kesić, O. Maček, and M. Fleischaker (Institute for Health Insurance of Workers), by the end of 1947 the Institute for Industrial Hygiene of the YASA was founded in the midst of the country’s rapid industrialisation. The manager of this Institute during its refurbishment and upgrade, as well as the head of all institutions and institutes established within the framework of YASA was academic Štampar. Being a true visionary, he recruited people and managed to find funding from the World Health Organisation and The Rockefeller Foundation for both the refurbishment and conversion of the existing buildings of the Institute for Protection Systems and the education of the first class of scientists.
Professor Težak worked for the Institute of Industrial Hygiene until 1948. That year he moved to the Faculty of Science of the University of Zagreb, and afterwards to the Institute Ruđer Bošković. Finally, he went to work for the International Permanent Exhibition of Publications. Along with his closest associates V. Vouk and I. Topolnik, he contributed immensely to the development of toxicology, whose footsteps were followed then by M. Vandekar, B. Matković, M. Fugaš, K. Wilhelm, and academic K. Kostial Šimonović. The latter, academic K. Kostial, is to be thanked for the construction, upgrade, and equipping of the radioisotope laboratory at Ksaver, and for the experimental research related to strontium and other heavy metals.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of WWII, headed by academic Štampar YASA founded a number of other scientifically oriented collaborative institutions within the Academy. Besides the Institute for Industrial Hygiene, the Institute for Medical Research was established as an institution focused on the local history of medicine. It was later on incorporated among other Institutes of YASA. In this scenario, the company Institute for Industrial Hygiene of YASA changed its name into the Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health – which lingered on until today. However, the trademark of the Institute as a company was adopted only on the occasion of the celebration of its 40th anniversary in 1988.
Refurbishment and interpolations were completed in April 1951 when the Institute for Industrial Hygiene of YASA began to work with only several full time employees and associates. It was presented to the public with a ceremonial speech by the vice president of YASA, academic and writer Miroslav Krleža, and in the presence of various officials of the time. Besides placing the emphasis on the activity stemming from the field of “industrial hygiene” (protective masks for miners, preventive physical examination for workers), the speech outlined the already reputable publishing activity of the Institute visible in the regular issues of the journal Archives of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology, with mentions of its predecessor, the Archives for Occupational Health (publisher: Institute for Health and Social Insurance) in which several employees of the Institute for Industrial Hygiene published their papers in that period. This is how the existing structural units were taken over by the Institute and new ones were set up. The Unit for Psychophysiology of Work was founded and it was equipped with state-of-the-art measuring devices in the field of ergonomics and neurophysiology. The new Institute also opened a new library and annexed the Unit of Occupational Health. This Unit operated externally for a number of years under the leadership of academic T. Beritić (hospital Merkur, University Hospital Centre Rebro, and then at its own location of the pavilion Rebro – clinical wards in the building of the UHC – site of Jordanovac, Health Centre Siget, Jurjevska) with its own clinical-biochemical, toxicological, immunological, and haematological laboratory. Academic T. Beritić also founded the Poison Control Centre as part of the Institute. He continued with research on experimental biochemistry and toxicology, focusing mostly on the effects and antidotes to organophosphorus compounds and then on the poisons of natural origin, drugs, and mathematical modelling of various compounds and metals. He then began to work on the research in the field of biology, in particular tissue culture, molecular biology, and genetics, and the hunting ground Šumbar, located close to the town of Karlovac, was further added to the Institute’s activity. Until 1957, some buildings were still the premises of the Firefighting School of the City National Council Zagreb, which in that year moved to another location in the same street. In 1977, the Institute finally assumed the status of an independent institution; first within the University of Zagreb and then as an organisation within the today’s Ministry of Science, Education, and Sports of the Republic of Croatia, primarily as a scientific institution.
In 1951, academic B. Kesić was appointed as the first director of the Institute (this capacity was also assumed briefly by colloid chemist V. Vouk). From 1962, the Institute’s director was academic M. Šarić, an occupational health specialist. His great merit was the setup of the Radiation Protection Unit (H. Cerovac, S. Popović, S. Gojnić) and the Department of Professional Diseases with Dispensary, Department of General and Clinical Medicine with a polyclinic and clinical wards, Anthropology Unit headed by academic P. Rudan (today’s general secretary of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts), and Molecular Biology Unit.
In 1958, the Institute was declared an independent research institution. The following year, it changed its name to the one it has today and remained independent until 1974, when it became part of the University of Zagreb. Nineteen years later, the Institute regained its autonomy and has kept it since.
Today, the Institute is the second largest research institution in the Republic of Croatia. Since 2004, it functions under the Ministry of Science and Education.
Since its foundation, a number of employees of the Institute have participated in the work of international organisations such as the UN (V. Antolić, A. Štampar), WHO (A. Štampar, V. Vouk, M. Vandekar, R. Pleština, D. Kello), ETF Zürich (Nobel prize winner V. Prelog, Z. Cimerman), and other globally known scientists (J. Godnić-Cvar, J. Goldoni, B. Kargačin, S. Kesić). Nevertheless, they also actively participated in the work of top scientific domestic institutions (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts: B. Kesić, M. Šarić, T. Beritić, K. Kostial Šimonović, P. Rudan, E. Reiner; Academy of Medical Sciences of Croatia: M. Mimica, B. Kanceljak-Macan, M. Gomzi, M. Pavlović), and higher education institutions [V. Drevenkar, A. Lucić Vrdoljak, J. Jurasović, M. Piasek, A. Pizent, J. Macan, V. M. Varnai, I. Vinković Vrček, I. Brčić Karačonji (Faculty of Science, Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry, Institute Ruđer Bošković, School of Public Health, School of Medicine Zagreb, Rijeka, Split)]. During the last war raging in Croatia in the early 1990s, a large number of employees of the Institute’s units of the time were scientifically and professionally involved in homeland defence. Several employees of the Institute proactively participated in the political system of Croatia (M. Mataušić-Pišl, D. Šimić, V. Vađić, V. Drevenkar, Z. Franić, L. Štilinović, R. Fuchs).
Nowadays, the scientific activity of the Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health is based on international, European, and domestic projects and contracts that cover multifaceted experimental, and in particular medical, research in the field of basic medical sciences and various general environmental topics such as air, sea, precipitation, and water quality, including the monitoring of radiation protection.
(our special thanks go to our former colleagues Mladen Pavlović and Nenad Raos for their valuable input)
For more on the history of the Institute please consult the book (in Croatian only) IMI očima suradnika (Raos N, editor. Zagreb: IMI; 1999).