VetLab: From Private Patronage to Private Enterprise


VetLab is the South Australian State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory which, over its hundred-year history, starting as a government laboratory of three staff shared with the medical profession, has endured many changes to emerge as a government-owned facility leased to a private enterprise service provider.

Early history

VetLab had its origins in 1910,with the establishment of the South Australian Government Laboratory of Pathology and Bacteriology (SAGLPB). At that time, the Adelaide Hospital (the ‘Royal’ came in 1939) had its own laboratory. Dr Constantine Trent Champion de Crespigny, the recently appointed medical superintendent of the Adelaide Hospital, established a sub-committee of other possible pathology laboratory users to examine the demand for these services in South Australia. In a prescient decision, characteristic of de Crespigny, the committee of medical and veterinary representatives, established a sub-committee which included the Chief Inspector of Stock (CIS), Mr RJ Needham, and the Government Veterinary Officer, Mr JF McEachran.

The sub-committee agreed that SAGLPB would provide services for:

  • public hospitals
  • the Commonwealth Quarantine Department
  • the Central Board of Health
  • local boards of health
  • administration of the Food and Drugs Act
  • private medical practitioners
  • examination of water and milk
  • preparation of vaccines and sera
  • veterinary and agricultural work
  • original research.

At the suggestion of the CIS, the committee agreed that stock inspectors would have access to SAGLPB staff in connection with livestock diseases they were investigating.

The founding staff of SAGLPB comprised:

  • the medical superintendent of the Adelaide Hospital (ex officio)
  • a scientist skilled in pathology and bacteriology, to be paid an annual salary of £400 (the CIS requested that this person also be skilled in animal diseases)
  • an unqualified skilled assistant to be paid an annual salary of £100
  • a visiting member for work on vaccines for an annual salary of £30.

SAGLPB opened for business on 17 August 1910. It was hailed as being unique in Australia in having all state government resources for pathology and bacteriology under one roof.

In 1912, de Crespigny broadened the scope of SAGLPB to include hygiene; appointed veterinarian Mr Lionel Bull as First Assistant Bacteriologist and Veterinary Pathologist; and re-named the laboratory as the South Australian Government Laboratory for Pathology, Bacteriology and Hygiene (SAGLPBAH). De Crespigny then relinquished the position of medical superintendent of the Hospital to become Director of SAGLPBAH.

No notable changes occurred until 1925, when Lionel Bull was appointed Director after De Crespigny was appointed Dean of the Medical Faculty of Adelaide University. Lionel Bull remained as Director until 1934, when he moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (IMVS)

The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Adelaide University Medical Faculty occurred in 1935, and there was discussion in Adelaide medical circles of establishing an institute of medical science. As in 1910, de Crespigny played a prominent role in these discussions. He had already obtained promises of donations of £5,000 from each of three prominent wealthy South Australians with pastoral interests:

  • Norman Darling, a member of the prominent milling family.
  • Tom (TE) Barr Smith, a prominent pastoralist.
  • Edith Bonython, a daughter of Sir Langdon Bonython, at that time the wealthiest South Australian. He had previously donated £100,000 to a cash-strapped government for the completion of Parliament House, and £30,000 for the construction of an eponymous hall on the university campus on North Terrace.

The Martin Foundation donated an additional £10,000. This foundation was established in the late 19th century from the estate of Thomas Martin, a property investor. It is unclear whether Martin had had any pastoral interests.

Four eminent London medical men met to select a director for what was to be known as the Institute of Medical Science (IMS):

  • Howard Florey, later Lord Florey of Adelaide and Marston
  • Sir Charles Martin, Professor of Pathology at Oxford University
  • Lord Horder of Ashford, Physician to the King.
  • Sir Charles Martin, Director of the Lister Institute.

They appointed Dr EW Hurst as the first Director of the IMS.

The foundation stone of the IMS was laid on 23 August 1937, which was before veterinary science was included in the remit of the IMS, and also before the necessary enabling legislation had been passed by the South Australian Parliament. According to the Advertiser of that date:

"…work having been expedited so that the ceremony may coincide with the inauguration of the Medical Congress in Adelaide."

On 30 November 1937, Premier Butler introduced a ‘surprise Bill’, the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science Bill 1937, into the state parliament. The Bill passed its second reading on the same day and became:

"An Act to provide for the establishment and maintenance of an Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science and for purposes incidental thereto."

It is not clear how or why the name changed from IMS to IMVS. It is likely that funding, which was scarce during the 1930s Great Depression, had resulted in the three donors with pastoral interests making it a condition of their donations that this be so. The Governor assented to the Bill on 15December 1937, and the Act was proclaimed on 9 June 1938.

The main provisions of the Act were that:

  • the IMVS be a body corporate with perpetual succession, a common seal, and be capable of suing and being sued
  • the IMVS be under the control and management of a council comprising:
    • the Director-General of Medical Services of the Adelaide Hospital
    • two other members of the Board of Management of the Adelaide Hospital
    • two members nominated by the Council of the University of Adelaide
    • a person whose business is, or includes, the raising of stock and is appointed by the Governor
  • the IMVS have a director and a deputy director
  • Edward Weston Hurst be the first Director for a period of five years, renewable
  • the principal roles of the IMVS be to:
    • research into the diseases of human beings and animals
    • furnish the Adelaide Hospital and any Minister of the Crown such services in pathology, bacteriology, biochemistry and other allied sciences as they require
    • perform such work for public authorities, medical practitioners and the public as the council thought proper
    • provide such facilities as the council thought proper for any person to conduct research at the Institute
    • provide the University of Adelaide with the use of any premises, plant or equipment of the Institute.

The cost of the IMVS was £53,000, comprising £25,000 in donations detailed above, an initial £15,000 from the state government and an additional £13,000 for fittings and equipment.

The Governor appointed Mr AE Hamilton, an accountant and prominent member of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society, as the ‘raising of stock’ member of the Council. He became the first chairman. Having established the IMVS on a firm administrative and financial base, Hamilton later resigned in favour of the now-Professor de Crespigny, who had been appointed as one of the two representatives of the Council of the University of Adelaide on the Council. In doing so, Hamilton wrote to de Crespigny:

"It was in the best interests of your Institute that my place should be taken by a scientific medical officer……you, to whom the credit of the establishment of the Institute is entirely due."

During World War II, the IMVS appears to have run smoothly. To adapt to war circumstances a unit for preparing dried serum for medical treatment of troops overseas was established.

Hurst resigned in 1943 to take up an appointment with Imperial Chemical (Pharmaceuticals) Ltd in England. He was succeeded by Professor Everton Rowe Trethewie in 1944.

In 1944, an amendment Act provided for the appointment by the Minister of Agriculture of a state public service veterinary officer to the IMVS Council.

Professor Trethewie’s term as Director of IMVS 19441950

Trethewie’s energies were directed principally to research. He published 43 papers during his term including some on snake venoms.

He resigned at the end of his term to return to Melbourne. He was succeeded by Dr John Orde Poynton

Dr John Orde Poynton’s Directorship of the IMVS 1950–1962

Dr Poynton was appointed Director of the IMVS in 1950. He had an interesting history –inter alia, he was educated at Marlborough College, where he won the Cotton English Essay Prize, with John Betjeman, later Poet Laureate, runner-up.

Poynton initiated a number of significant developments:

  • the appointment of Dr Percy S Watts, a senior veterinary pathologist, as Director of Veterinary Clinical Pathology with a brief to develop that Division.
  • the development of an animal breeding facility for the production of laboratory animals
  • assistance with the establishment of IMVS regional laboratories, the first in Mt Gambier. Subsequently the number of regional laboratories grew substantially, of which six serviced local veterinary practices.

In 1958, sketch plans were prepared for laboratories for the IMVS Veterinary Division on a 40 acre site at Northfield to the north of the city. This land was used to accommodate the animal breeding facility in a new division named Animal Science, of which Percy Watts became Director. Dr John W McCaulay was appointed Director of Veterinary Clinical Pathology in 1966.

Jim Bonnin’s Directorship of the IMVS 1962–1980

In 1962, Dr James (Jim) Bonnin succeeded Orde Poynton as IMVS Director. He was responsible for several important developments:

  • the widespread introduction of auto-analysers housed in, and managed by, other IMVS divisions, but freely available to the Veterinary Division
  • in-house training of professional staff, who were also encouraged to travel interstate and overseas for training
  • training of technical staff in association with the Australian Institute of Medical Laboratory Technology
  • introduction of a level of computerisation.

Percy Watts retired in 1973. This enabled John McCaulay, to amalgamate Veterinary Clinical Pathology and Animal Science, which had become separated by personality conflicts within the Divisions.

John McCauley oversaw a considerable increase in both veterinary and scientific staff to cope with the tremendous increase in routine diagnostic work in a Diagnostic Pathology Unit and the introduction of tests required for the National Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Campaign (BTEC). He retired in 1977.

Dr Earle Gardner was appointed Director of the Veterinary Division of the IMVS in 1978

Following the recommendation of an interdepartmental committee convened in 1977 by the Ministers of Health and Agriculture, a joint post was created in which the Director of the Veterinary Division also had responsibility as Director of Veterinary Laboratory Services in the Department of Agriculture.

One of Earle Gardner’s first responsibilities was to design and commission the South East Regional Veterinary Laboratory, a joint venture by the IMVS and the Department of Agriculture. In February 1980, a prefabricated laboratory was delivered from Adelaide and installed in the grounds of the Department’s Regional Headquarters at Struan House, near Naracoorte in the South-East of the State. This laboratory was principally to cater for the increased laboratory services required by BTEC.

Reviews of the IMVS

During the late 1970s, when the number of IMVS staff reached a peak of 895, a number of reviews of its operation and structure were carried out:

  • WD Scott Management Consultants reviewed the IMVS structure and staffing, and advised on the development of a Management Information System.
  • Professor Sir Geoffrey Badger reviewed the provision of pathology services in the State. He was asked to recommend whether the Veterinary Division should be transferred to the Department of Agriculture. He recommended in the negative
  • Dr Ronald Wells, was also asked to examine whether the Veterinary Division should be transferred to the Department of Agriculture. He also recommended in the negative and that its Director become a full-time employee of the IMVS.
  • In 1978, Professor Bede Morris reviewed the use of laboratory animals following what were termed some ‘unsatisfactory incidents’ in their use in the IMVS. He also recommended that the Veterinary Division remain within the IMVS.

Transfer of the IMVS Veterinary Division to the Department of Agriculture

Following these reviews, the state government decided to revise the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science Act. Among the provisions to be included in the revised Act was that the IMVS be incorporated into the South Australian Health Commission. But the government believed that this would fail to adequately recognise the role of the IMVS as a provider of veterinary pathology services. It would mean that a human healthcare authority would be responsible for animal health and matters relating to the state’s livestock industry, and to companion and sporting animals.

Taking all factors into account, the government decided that the Veterinary Division of the IMVS should become the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, but remain physically located with the IMVS, thus allowing the professional and practical relationships to remain unchanged. The South Australian Parliament passed the IMVS Amendment Act 1982. The transfer occurred on 1 July 1982.

At the time of the transfer, the Veterinary Division had a staff of approximately130 on two campuses. Four sections were based in the IMVS Building in Frome Road in the City: Administration and Management; Pathology; Microbiology; and Biochemistry. The Animal Services section comprised an animal house in Frome Road and a laboratory animal breeding and holding facility at the second campus at Gilles Plains, to the north of the city. This facility was known as the Gilles Plains Field Station. It bred specific pathogen free (SPF) mice, rats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. The Field Station also had ten holding paddocks for sheep and horses for the production of whole blood for blood products. There were also a number of animal houses for sheep and cattle that were the subject of biomedical trials.

The Field Station also accommodated a scientific group, known as the Evolutionary Biology Unit (EBU), which was a pioneer in the field of DNA chromatography for determining the taxonomic relationships of organisms.

An assimilation group comprising three officers of the Department of Agriculture, Dr John Radcliffe, Director of Policy and Planning; Dr Tony Davidson, Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer; and Mr Barry Windle, Special Project Officer, reviewed the existing structure and staffing of the Veterinary Division. Following this review, the Department of Agriculture decided that:

  • EBU be transferred to the South Australian Museum, but the remainder of the Field Station remain with the Veterinary Division and become known as the Gillies Plains Animal Resource Centre (GPARC)
  • Dr Gardner would concentrate on his role as Chief Pathologist
  • Dr Davidson would assume the role of Chief of the Veterinary Division.

The Creation of VetLab

In common with most service delivery units in the public service at that time, the Veterinary Division was expected to fully recover its cost of operation. A marketing strategy was therefore developed, which included:

  • the development of an entrepreneurial image, particularly by the creation of a registered trade name and logo, ‘VetLab’
  • visiting veterinary practices to promote VetLab services
  • reviewing, and usually raising, fees
  • improving turnaround time for delivery of pathology results.

VetLab had competitors, particularly for delivery of veterinary pathology services to metropolitan veterinary practitioners.

On 1 July 1989, the State Chemistry Laboratories (SCL), whose largest client was the Department of Agriculture, was transferred from the Department of Services and Supply to the Department of Agriculture, and joined VetLab to become part of a re-named Division of Diagnostic and Animal Services. However, SCL continued to operate from its laboratories in the Forensic Science Centre in Divett Place in the city.

VetLab accommodation

Management of the IMVS and Department of Agriculture had on many occasions canvassed a proposal that the Veterinary Division move out of the IMVS building to its own premises; however, no suitable accommodation had been found. The favoured site had been the Northfield Laboratories, the location of the Department of Agriculture’s principal dairy research laboratory until that facility moved to a more suitable farm property in the Adelaide Hills. However, the state government subsequently decided to sell the Northfield site for housing development.

In the absence of a single recognised centre of veterinary expertise in South Australia, informal discussions had previously taken place between VetLab and the Waite Institute Animal Science group. With the acquisition of SCL, accommodated in the State Forensic Centre, the Department of Agriculture managed two groups which occupied laboratories in inner-city host organisations which were themselves short of space. This led to pressure to accommodate VetLab and SCL in a less prime area.

The state government agreed to fund a building to accommodate VetLab, SCL and the Waite Animal Science Group at the Waite Institute at an estimated cost of $18 million. Planning, although slow, was well advanced when the project was abandoned after the collapse of the State Bank in 1991. The three dispossessed entities were therefore forced to make other arrangements:

  • VetLab remained at the IMVS until 1993, when it moved to alternative accommodation at Glenside.
  • SCL continued to operate in their laboratories in the Forensic Science Centre, and was returned to the Department of Services and Supply in 1993. Soon after that, SCL was disbanded.
  • The Waite Animal Science Group moved to an expanded Roseworthy College.

Another sequel to the collapse of the State Bank was that the Department of Agriculture commissioned management consultants McKinsey and Company to carry out an organisational development review (ODR) of the department, titled ‘Plotting a course for agriculture in South Australia’. The ODR conclusion in relation to the Division of Diagnostic and Animal Services was that most of the services provided are discretionary and not obviously aligned with the mission of the Department.

McKinsey recommended:

  • VetLab be merged with, and be funded through, the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal Health for livestock animal health programs only
  • SCL be disbanded.

Private Enterprise

In 1994, the Department of Agriculture called for tenders from the private sector to provide VetLab’s services under the VetLab name and logo which is registered in the name of the Minister of Agriculture. The first tender was awarded to Idexx Laboratories. Re-tendering occurs at 5-6 year intervals with Idexx and Gribbles Pathology both having had successes


VetLab has had an interesting journey from a small pathology laboratory shared with the medical profession in the Adelaide Hospital to become, through the generosity of private benefactors in the pastoral industry, a division of a renowned medical and veterinary institute, to a government laboratory leased to private enterprise service providers. The journey is unlikely to end here and it interesting to speculate what that future might be.

VetLab: From Private Patronage to Private Enterprise


  • SA Acts of Parliament, 1937, in the State Library of South Australia.
  • IMVS Newsletters, in State Archives.
  • Nicholson B: IMVS 50TH Anniversary Review 1938–1988.
  • SA  610.72. I 59. b 1988
  • Mr Martin Holmes, Manager of GPARC 1984–1990, personal communication.
  • Dr John Radcliffe, past Director-General of Agriculture, personal communication.
  • Professor Mary Barton, past Chief of VetLab, personal communication.
  • Dr. Chris Watts, past chief of EBU, personal communication.
  • Dr. Brendan Kearney, past Director of IMVS, personal communication.
  • Hon Jennifer Adamson (Cashmore) Minister of Health 1979–1982, personal communication.

Author:  This paper was presented to the Pan Pacific Veterinary Conference in Brisbane in May 2015 by Dr PAS (Tony) Davidson.

Date: April 2016

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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