The first director of the institute was Dr Sydney W Patterson, a University of Melbourne medical graduate.
Dr Patterson had followed Dr Gordon Clunes Mathison, the first director designate of the institute, as a Beit Fellow at University College, London, where he had carried out outstanding research in physiology.
After serving in World War I, Dr Patterson took up the post as institute director in late 1919.
It was a difficult time, fraught with post-war difficulties in supplies. Nevertheless, he succeeded in equipping departments of bacteriology and serology, biochemistry, morbid anatomy and experimental pathology.
While the institute’s principal responsibility was research, with its location within the Melbourne Hospital it was also expected to offer assistance to the medical work of the hospital in post-mortems and clinical pathology.
Some teaching was also offered to medical students and the institute housed a pathology museum.
The research focus was on community diseases, particularly those affecting the respiratory tract, such as influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Other diseases studied included hydatid disease, dysentery, cancer, gonorrhea and malaria.
Dr Patterson also advocated for closer clinical collaboration, and the strongest possible cooperation between workers in hospital wards and those in the laboratory.
The institute became a staging place for medical graduates returning from the war and many were to become notable figures in Australian medical history. Among these were Dr Patterson’s first assistant director, Sir Neil Hamilton Fairley, as well as Sir Harold R Dew and Dr Keith Fairley.
Many of Dr Patterson’s recruits, including his first appointment, Miss Fannie Williams, remained at the institute for several decades, building a culture of scientific excellence.
Dr Patterson was institute director when new medical graduate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet also joined to serve as acting pathology registrar. He would later become the institute’s third director, a position he would hold for 21 years.
In 1923 Dr Patterson returned to the United Kingdom to take up a clinical position at Ruthin Castle. He was succeeded as director by Dr Charles Kellaway.