Overview of the history of the Institute

The "Institute for Ship and Tropical Diseases" began its work on 1 October 1900, with 24 employees. Today, more than 400 staff work at the "Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine" (BNITM), making it Germany's largest institution for research, care and teaching in the field of tropical diseases and emerging infectious diseases.

Origins in colonial times

Like all tropical institutes founded around 1900, the BNITM has its roots in the colonial era. In the course of the colonial conquest and exploitation of countries and territories in the Global South, ship crews and travellers increasingly brought unusual infectious diseases to Germany via the port of Hamburg. The founding purpose was therefore the research and control of tropical pathogens.

The cholera epidemic of 1892 in Hamburg provided the final impetus: about 9,000 people had died of the disease. The economic damage was also immense. Russian sailors or emigrants in transit had probably brought the bacterium with them. Because of the outdated drinking water system, it was able to spread quickly. The city of Hamburg was forced to restructure its health system and appointed Bernhard Nocht as harbour doctor. A little later, the city's parliament decided to "restructure the Seamen's Hospital and combine it with an Institute for Ship and Tropical Diseases".

Black and white photo of a launch on the Elbe
The harbour doctor on his way to the ship's crew.   ©BNITM

History of the Institute

The new port doctor realised the urgent need for further training for doctors in dealing with tropical diseases. According to the principle of "research, cure, teach", the institute made research and teaching in the field of ship and tropical medicine its task in addition to patient care. After the experience of the cholera epidemic, similar outbreaks were to be prevented in the future. Hamburg's merchants also had an economic interest in the development of tropical medicine. They implemented new findings on the prevention of malaria and other diseases on their ships so that the crews remained healthy and efficient. The institute offered numerous continuing education courses for doctors in the early years and counted more than 800 participants by 1914. Research focused on laboratory studies of exotic pathogens and their vector insects. In addition, the institute conducted studies on travellers and seafarers with imported infections. Research visits to the tropics took place only very sporadically.

At the onset of the war in 1914, the building was converted into a reserve hospital and research work largely came to a standstill. During the world wars, the Institute endeavoured to retain or regain access to the tropics in the German colonial territories: During the Weimar Republic, the economic and world political conditions on which the existence of the Tropical Institute was based had changed fundamentally. After the peace treaty of Versailles, the German Empire no longer possessed any colonies. German scientists were internationally isolated. The Tropical Institute lacked a raison d'être. Its continued existence was uncertain.

Old black and white photograph showing a bombed building
Heavy bomb damage, especially in the hospital wing of the institute   ©BNITM

Under National Socialism, several Jewish employees were forced by the Nazis to leave the Institute. There is evidence of drug trials on the inmates of the Langenhorn sanatorium and nursing home and the testing of new cures on prisoners suffering from typhus in the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. The institute building was severely damaged during the nights of bombing in Hamburg.

Shortly after the end of the war, Bernhard Nocht and his wife took their own lives. In a farewell letter to their children, they wrote that they did not feel up to the task of reconstruction.

Reconstruction and reorientation

With the liberation by the Allies in 1945, a phase of reorientation began at the Bernhard Nocht Institute. The Institute's directors cultivated international contacts and made intensive efforts to establish the first research cooperations with South America, Asia and Africa. In 1968, the Institute established its first research station in Liberia, West Africa, and a few years later took over the management of the clinical laboratory of the Albert Swiss Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. With the founding of the Department of Virology in the 1950s, the Institute received one of the first electron microscopes in Germany and acquired the corresponding expertise. It was thus also able to significantly support the establishment of electron microscopy at the Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro.

However, after an external review in 1986, the Science Council stated that the BNI did not meet the expectations of a modern non-university research institution. Tropical medicine had failed to use new disciplines such as immunology or molecular biology for its research.

This was to change in the 1990s. The institute received modern laboratories, was able to attract young international scientists and developed modern research concepts. It also succeeded in establishing research cooperation with various countries. For example, the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR) was opened in Ghana in 1998. It is run in partnership by BNITM, the University of Kumasi and the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Ghana. These projects directly contribute to building research infrastructures in Africa.

KCCR employees in predominantly red T-shirts stand on the balcony of the institute, some waving. In the front, in the middle, stand the scientific director Prof. Phillips and the blonde managing director Ingrid Sobel.
In 2022, the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine in Ghana (KCCR) celebrates its 25th anniversary.   ©KCCR

Research for Global Health

Today, the BNITM is one of the world's leading institutions in the field of tropical and emerging infections. The institute conducts state-of-the-art laboratory research and uses the latest methods in immunology, molecular and cell biology. As a founding member of the Centre for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB), the BNITM maintains laboratories on the DESY campus in Hamburg Bahrenfeld. The scientists have access to the unique imaging techniques used for the latest research results in virology and parasitology. In addition to research in the laboratory, the BNITM carries out extensive research projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In cooperation with partner countries, BNITM conducts research on the epidemiology, therapy and control of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as malaria, worm infections or haemorrhagic fevers, among other things.


Work is carried out at the Institute on improving the quinine therapy for malaria. Phokion Kopanaris discovers that antimalarial drugs work similarly in humans and canaries. Experiments with modified quinine formulations no longer have to be carried out on humans.

Inauguration of the new building

Inauguration of the new building for the Institute in Bernhardstraße (today Bernhard-Nocht-Straße), which has grown considerably in the meantime. It still houses the laboratories and clinic today. After the outbreak of World War I, almost all the Institute's staff are called up. The clinical department is used as a reserve hospital.

The picture shows an old black and white photo of the BNITM.
Historical picture of the old BNITM building   ©BNITM

Science Council

The evaluation of the Institute by the Science Council, published in 1986, draws attention to a number of failures in the scientific orientation of the Institute.

New director

Hans J. Müller-Eberhard (1927-1998) is appointed director to implement the recommendations of the Science Council. Among other things, immunological and molecular biological groups are established.

Successful evaluation

In July, the Senate of the Leibniz Association publishes its report on the evaluation of the Institute by the Leibniz Association, which takes place every seven years. It was carried out by 19 external experts at the end of 2009. The Institute was certified as having "very good to excellent scientific achievements" and a "convincing overall concept for development". The federal and state governments are recommended to continue to fully support it as a "nationally and internationally visible, recognised centre of excellence for tropical medicine".

New Borna virus discovered

Following the occurrence of fatal brain infections in three breeders of variegated squirrels within three years in Saxony-Anhalt, employees of the BNITM and the Friedrich Loeffler Institute succeed in proving a novel Borna virus as the cause, which is apparently transmitted from the animals to humans during close contact. The Robert Koch Institute and the country's veterinary and health authorities are alerted.

Federal Health Minister thanks Ebola helpers

Federal Minister Hermann Gröhe and Hamburg Science Minister Dr Dorothee Stapelfeldt visit the Institute to personally thank the BNITM staff for their numerous missions in the Ebola crisis area and for reliable diagnostics of samples from all over the world.