The National Institutes of Health is a massive operation composed of 27 different institutes now and paying out an annual budget of more than $30 billion.

But it wasn't always so. In 1887, at the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, the precursor to the NIH, the Hygenic Laboratory was born. Dr. Joseph Kinyoun worked to get the "germ theory" of infection adopted in the US, collecting pathogens from the blood and stool of the sick.

Kinyoun sailed to Europe for six months to train with the great bacteriologists of his day, including Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, bringing back laboratory techniques, recipes for effective treatments, and a passionate vision for reforming US health practices, says author and historian Joseph Houts, Kinyoun's great-grandson. "It was in great part due to him that the 'germ theory' made its way back to the United States," Houts adds.

In 1891, the Laboratory moved to Washington, D.C., and Kinyoun "remained the sole full-time staff member" for the next decade. Over the next decades, the medical research infrastructure of the country would continue to grow, but it wasn't until the post-WWII period that the institutes boomed. In 1947, the institute received about 8 million dollars. By 1959, it received $290 million.

And that total has kept growing, crossing a billion dollars of funding by 1966 and 10 billion dollars in 1993.

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Image: National Cancer Institute. Via The Scientist.