Research in the Alps: radiation and medical effects of the high climate in Davos

The idea of establishing a research institute in Davos dates back to the year 1905, when Dr. Carl Turban submitted an application to the Medical Association in Davos. However, his plan was not realized until 1922, when the Institute for Alpine Physiology and Tuberculosis Research was founded in Davos.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carl Dorno, founder of the Radiation Climatology, had built and operated the basis for today’s observatory known as the Physikalisch-Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos/World Radiation Center (PMOD/WRC) with his own assets. It was Dorno’s aim to develop a better understanding of Davos’ climate and its curative effects. In 1926, the observatory became part of the Institute for Alpine Physiology and Tuberculosis Research. The foundation consisted of two independent departments, the observatory and the medical department, today known as the Swiss Institute for Allergy and Asthma Research (SIAF).
The PMOD was directed by Dorno’s successor, Dr. Walter Mörikofer, for almost 38 years. Mörikofer’s long-term radiation measurements with various instruments led to the international standardization of the measurement methods of the stations worldwide.

In 1964, the World Meteorologic Organisation considered the establishment of a World Radiation Center. Lengthy negotiations with the Swiss authorities led to the solution of contributing to the World Weather Watch Program with the Davos observatory as the World Radiation Center. The Federal Council decided to support the institute from then on. Moreover, the school house in Davos Dorf was renovated completely before the institute moved in in 1976.
In order to enable and improve the results of their measurements, the physicians of the PMOD brought their instruments beyond the atmosphere closer to the sun. Starting in 1979, experiments with stratosphere balloons and rockets were performed and the first experiences with space tools were gained. The first real space experiment for solar research was launched in July 1988 with the Russian missions PHOBOS I and II, which should reach Phobos, a moon of Mars. The PMOD/WRC also participated in EURECA, the European platform launched in 1992. The satellite was launched from the Atlantis space shuttle by the Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier.

Also the medical department of the Institute for Alpine Physiology and Tuberculosis Research developed at high speed: At the end of the 1950s, a new purpose of the tuberculosis institute became necessary. In December 1960, a historic meeting of the management and the scientific board was held at the main station in Zurich. Zurich was chosen as the meeting location because most of the board members were professors at the universities of Zurich or Bern. The new topics were literally hanging in the air, although they were from a scientific perspective entirely new. One fundamental idea based on the experience that patients suffering from allergic asthma lived almost symptom-free in the alpine climate. With generous support from the industry and the municipality, this new positioning was realized, leading to a focus of the research on allergies and asthma.

Snow and avalanche research

Until the twentieth century, only a few individuals, most of them forest rangers, dedicated themselves to the threats of avalanches. Thus, only a handful of works on avalanches and avalanche protections had existed before other industries such as ski tourism, transport services and hydropower plant operators demanded more scientific methods regarding avalanches. As a result, the Committee for Snow and Avalanche Research was founded in 1931.
Soon the members of the committee recognized the necessity of observing the snow on-site during the winter in order to understand its structure, down to the microscopic level of the snow crystals. Therefore, a laboratory made of snow was built in 1935 in Davos. As not only the experiments, but even the building itself melted in case of temperature changes, the committee decided to build a wooden construction and a testing ground one year later on the Weissfluhjoch, in the middle of an avalanche area. Until 1942, when the Federal Council decided to support the foundation of the Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, the committee performed its research in this wooden building and the outdoor testing ground. Already one year later, in 1943, the WSL-Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF opened its institute building on the Weissfluhjoch. This building is still in use for certain experiments nowadays, nevertheless, the new building was opened in 1996 at the Flüelastrasse in Davos Dorf.

From experimental surgery to bone healing

In 1958, Dr. Martin Allgöwer, private lecturer and chief physician at the surgery department of the Cantonal Hospital in Chur, was searching for appropriate rooms for his research in experimental surgery. As the “Villa Fontana” of the Institute for Alpine Physiology and Tuberculosis Research was vacant, four rooms were made available for Dr. Allgöwer. Together with other Swiss colleagues, he founded the Association for the Study of Internal Fixation (Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Osteosynthesefragen, AO). In 1967 Herbert Fleisch, then Director of the association, was appointed to the University of Bern as Professor for pathophysiology, followed by many of his academic colleagues from Davos. In the same year, Stefan M. Perren was assigned as the new head of the institute. Prof. Dr. Perren shifted a strong focus of the AO Research Institute to the biology and the biomechanics of the bone as well as bone healing. Under the lead of Prof. Dr. Perren, the Laboratory for Experimental Surgery, as it used to be called, developed into a strong organization, a multidisciplinary research facility with many opportunities for experiments, examinations, trials and controls.

Christian Virchow, Forschungsinstitute in Davos und ihre heutigen Aufgaben, in: Ernst Halter (Hrsg.), 1997: Davos, Profil eines Phänomens
WSL-Insititut für Schnee- und Lawinenforschung SLF:  http://www.slf.ch/ueber/geschichte/anfaenge_lawinenforschung/index_DE
Dania Achermann, 2009: Die Schnee- und Lawinenforschung in der Schweiz. Lizenziatsarbeit.