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Swiss Tropical Institute commemorates founder

Rudolf Geigy in 1945 collecting Tsetse flies in Africa. Swiss Tropical Institute

The Swiss Tropical Institute (STI) in Basel is celebrating the centenary of the birth of its founder and first director, Professor Rudolf Geigy.

Geigy, who was born in Basel on December 20, 1902, made significant contributions to biology, medicine and development cooperation.

His legacy includes pioneering work on tropical diseases like sleeping sickness and malaria, as well as his method of combining field and laboratory research.

He inspired a generation of students to investigate tick-borne diseases, and built research partnerships between Switzerland and developing countries.

His father was head of the family firm, Geigy AG, the chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing company that later became part of Ciba-Geigy.

Not wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps, he chose to study zoology rather than chemistry.

He soon acquired a reputation as a developmental biologist, and in 1938 became a professor at Basel University.

When the STI was founded in 1943, Geigy was appointed director – a post he retained until 1973.

Development vision

Research during Geigy’s years as director covered a wide variety of diseases, parasites and their hosts.

His style of investigating tropical diseases combined study in the field with investigations in the laboratory.

“He started this process very early after his first expeditions in the 1940s to sub-Saharan Africa,” said Marcel Tanner, the Institute’s current director.

“You study the disease among the population concerned. This raises questions which then require in-depth laboratory work. The laboratory may provide solutions which you then validate in the field.”


Sleeping sickness was Geigy’s main interest; indeed the cages used worldwide to house tsetse flies for laboratory experiments are known as Geigy cages.

“He was one of the first to explore which game animals are reservoirs for sleeping sickness, particularly for the East African variety,” Tanner told swissinfo.

“It was Professor Geigy who did the extensive surveys in East Africa to look at the high-risk points for transmission. He looked at the game side, he looked at the human side and he looked at the tsetse fly side.”

Tick-borne relapsing fever was another area of study, and in particular the investigation of ticks as vectors for diseases.

Of the students he inspired, some have become world authorities in their field such as Professor Willy Burgdorfer, now in the United States, who in the early 1980s discovered the cause of Lyme Disease.


In the 1950s, Geigy and his students began investigating the transmission dynamics of malaria.

Geigy, who died in 1995, did not hesitate to use the resources and influence that came from being a member of the family which owned one of Basel’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

He would charter aeroplanes for expeditions or persuade an airline to carry a cage of tsetse flies or an aardvark.

He established foundations to support young scientists; he was also president of the board of directors of Basel Zoo for 30 years.

Core task

Today, the Swiss Tropical Institute is still engaged in its three core tasks of research, providing services and training.

It remains very active in Tanzania, Chad, Ivory Coast and Ghana, where it is heavily involved in research partnerships – another Geigy legacy.

“Besides just coming from the north to explore in the south, he quickly saw the tremendous need to build further research capacity in the south,” said Tanner.

“He was really one of the first who insisted very much on research partnerships for development.”

Diseases of poverty

The fight continues against the diseases of poverty like HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

“The biggest challenge is to get the existing tools of control working within the existing health systems,” said Tanner.

“It is not just to develop a vaccine against HIV/Aids or malaria, but to carry this tool to the community level, to community effectiveness.”

In recent years, the Swiss Tropical Institute has taken on a wider international health role with collaborations across Asia and projects in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Rudolf Geigy was born in Basel on December 20 1902.
He was the first director of the Swiss Tropical Institute from 1943-73.
Geigy’s work made important contributions to our understanding of tropical diseases.
He fostered research partnerships between Switzerland and developing countries.
Geigy died on March 8 1995.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR