The institute on the island of Riems was founded by Friedrich Loeffler in 1910 based on a decree of the Prussian Ministry of Culture to conduct research on foot and mouth disease. It was the first institute that was explicitly established to do research into a virus disease of animals and therefore counts among the worldwide oldest virus research institutes.
In 1898, Friedrich Loeffler (1852-1915) and Paul Frosch (1860-1928) described the causative agent of foot and mouth disease (FMD) as a filterable, but corpuscular, replication-competent agent.
With this discovery, Friedrich Loeffler became one of the founders of the science of virology. In the course of his extensive works, repeated FMD outbreaks occurred in the vicinity of the city of Greifswald. Therefore, he was ultimately asked by the authorities to find a new location for his research. Friedrich Loeffler decided to continue his studies on the island of Riems. After the establishment of the first laboratory buildings and animal houses he informed the Prussian Minister of Agriculture on October 10, 1910 that he had taken up work on the island of Riems. In 1913, Friedrich Loeffler was assigned as director of the Robert Koch-Institute in Berlin, which limited his research activities on Riems until they came to a complete stop during the First World War.
After the end of the war, the veterinarian Otto Waldmann was commissioned in 1919 to continue Loeffler’s work on Riems. Foot and Mouth Disease and the production of a hyperimmune serum remained the centre of the activities.
Thus, Karl Trautwein discovered the FMD serotype C in the mid-1920s. The following years until the beginning of the Second World War were characterized by the development of a vaccine against FMD. In 1938, Otto Waldmann and Karl Köbe presented a formalin- and heat-inactivated, aluminum hydroxide adsorbed FMD vaccine which was used in the outbreak of the years 1938 - 1940. In the 1930s the institute also conducted research on classical swine fever, classical and atypical fowl plague and other virus diseases of farm animals.
In 1943, the ownership of the “Staatliche Forschungsanstalten Insel Riems” was transferred to the Reich and the institute was re-designated “Reichsforschungsanstalt Insel Riems”. In 1945, equipment and appliances of the institute were lost to the Soviet Union as war reparations. Under the impression of the FMD outbreaks raging in Europe, work on Riems was taken up again in 1946. In 1948, Heinz Röhrer became head of the „Forschungsanstalt für Tierseuchen Insel Riems“.
In 1950, the GDR was the first country worldwide to introduce mandatory vaccination of cattle against FMD. After its foundation in 1951, the German Academy of Agricultural Sciences took over the responsibility for the institute. At the occasion of the 100th birthday of Friedrich Loeffler on June 24, 1952 the institute was given the name „Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut“. In the following years the institute continued to grow; in 1960, 405 persons were employed on Riems, among them 30 scientists. In 1960, the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut celebrated its 50th anniversary; an international conference which was also attended by scientists from the West was the highlight of the festivities. The institute produced vaccines on a large scale; in 1966, a modern production line for FMD tissue culture vaccine was established.
From 1973 to 1985, the FLI on the island of Riems belonged to the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the GDR. Research became more practice-oriented; the extent of basic research was reduced. The institute’s spectrum of virus diseases grew, numerous vaccines were developed and produced. Another major issue was the development of diagnostic procedures and their preparation for practical application. In addition, the institute established a cell bank for use within the „Council for Mutual Economic Assistance“ (Comecon) and a diagnostic centre. It was actively involved in the elaboration of official concepts for animal disease control. In the course of time, the emphasis shifted more and more to production at the expense of research. Due to the political situation the institute was more and more isolated and its activities on the international level were limited drastically. After 1985, research was limited further when the institute became part of the State Combine for veterinary vaccines “VEB Kombinat Veterinärimpfstoffe Dessau/Tornau” under the name VEB „Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut“. Shortly before German reunification the institute had approx. 800 employees.
In 1990, the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut on Riems was re-incorporated into the Academy of Agricultural Sciences. With the newly established scientific research departments Diagnostics, Applied Virology and Molecular Biology/Cell Techniques basic research was strengthened. The entire vaccine production was outsourced and privatized; the number of employees was reduced by half to 400. In 1991, the Scientific Council evaluated the institute and recommended its maintenance. It was also recommended to consolidate the affiliations Riems, Tübingen and Wusterhausen at the headquarters on the island of Riems in the long run.
On January 1, 1992, the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut on the island of Riems was re-founded as part of the “Federal Research Centre for Virus Diseases of Animals” (BFAV).
After the detection of the first case of BSE in cattle in Germany on November 26, 2000, the Institute of Novel and Emerging Diseases was established at the FLI within a very short time frame; it already resumed its work on January 1, 2001.
On June 26, 2004, the “Federal Research Centre for Virus Diseases of Animals” was re-designated as “Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut” (FLI) with the addition “Federal Research Institute for Animal Health”. Under this name the FLI concentrates scientific expertise in infectious diseases of farm animals and zoonoses. In 2004, it consisted of eight institutes at four sites.
When state research within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) was re-structured with effect of January 1, 2008 the FLI grew again. The former FAL institutes for Animal Nutrition in Braunschweig, for Animal Welfare and Animal Husbandry in Celle and for Farm Animal Genetics in Mariensee were incorporated into the FLI. Thus, the FLI now covers the entire spectrum of animal health.
Pursuant to the research development concept of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut closed its site in Tübingen by the end of the year 2011 and its site in Wusterhausen, Brandenburg by the end of the year 2013. The Institutes of Immunology and Epidemiology will continue their work at the FLI headquarters on the island of Riems. Hence, the Institutes of Molecular Virology and Cell Biology, Infectology, Diagnostic Virology, Novel and Emerging Diseases, Immunology and Epidemiology are located her. At the beginning of 2020, the newly founded Institute of International Animal Health/One Health took up its work. Today the FLI it consists of 12 institutes at 5 sites.