Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Professor Guido Guidotti

Although the Department of Biological Chemistry (now Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology) at Harvard Medical School was established in 1908, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was started only in 1967 and lasted until 1994. Nevertheless, biochemistry was taught at Harvard College since the early 1920s. Lawrence J. Henderson, for whom the Department of Physical Chemistry at Harvard Medical School was set up in 1920, taught a biochemistry course in Cambridge, Chemistry 15, from about 1919 to 1940; this course had a great influence on the scientific choices of John Edsall and Jeffries Wyman. Henderson also was involved in the development of the Biochemical Sciences concentration and tutorial program in 1925-26. This concentration, administered by the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences whose members were principally at Harvard Medical School, was designed to introduce Harvard undergraduates to biochemistry. In 1967 the tutorial program became the responsibility of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Shortly after Jeffries Wyman returned from England in 1927 to an appointment in the Harvard Zoology Department, he started to give a course in physical biochemistry which eventually included studies on the properties of hemoglobin. When in 1940 Henderson ceased giving Chemistry 15, John Edsall, who was in the Department of Physical Chemistry at Harvard Medical School, joined Wyman in teaching the physical biochemistry course. The lectures in the course were the basis for the book Biophysical Chemistry published in 1958. John Edsall continued to give the course after Wyman left Harvard in 1952 ; eventually he taught it with Paul Doty. The most recent edition of the course was taught by Don Wiley as MCB 112.

In 1935, the Department of Biology, by then in the Biological Laboratories, realized that biochemistry was an important subject; George Wald, who had come to Harvard from Columbia University, began to give a course in general biochemistry ( Biology 190), initially with Kenneth Thimann, a plant biochemist also in Biology, and continued to do so until 1960. Associated with this course, there was an independent laboratory course in biochemistry (Biology 191) taught even after the end of the lecture course until 1975.

In the period after the second world war, President Conant did try to establish biochemistry in Cambridge through the formation of a Department of Biochemistry with three subdivisions in 1946. Attempts were made first to recruit Carl Cori from Washington University in 1947 and then Edwin J. Cohn from the Department of Physical Chemistry at Harvard Medical School in 1951. These initiatives failed and the vote establishing the department was rescinded in 1955.

Nevertheless, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, biochemistry became a growing activity in Cambridge. In 1948, Paul Doty came to the Department of Chemistry. His interests in polymers expanded to include studies of polypeptides, proteins and nucleic acids. In 1954, John Edsall moved from the Department of Biophysical Chemistry at Harvard Medical School to the Biological Laboratories in Cambridge, and Konrad Bloch and Frank Westheimer joined the Chemistry Department from the University of Chicago. Finally, a successful initiative in Cambridge began in 1954-55 with the formation of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biochemistry by this group of biochemist, together with Wald and Thimann, so as to have a graduate program leading to the PhD degree in biochemistry. In 1956 James Watson arrived in the Biological Laboratories from CalTech, shortly after his discovery of the structure of DNA with Crick in 1953, and brought molecular biology to Cambridge. In 1958, the Committee was awarded a training grant from the National Institutes of Health to support the graduate program. By the early 1960s, Matthew Meselson joined the Committee from CalTech, Walter Gilbert was attracted to Watson's laboratory from the Physics Department, Mark Ptashne came as one of the early graduate students and stayed on and Guido Guidotti joined the Committee from the Rockefeller University. The graduate program was very successful and attracted many superb students. In 1965, the name of the Committee was changed to Committee on Higher Degrees in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Edsall (1954-57), Bloch (1957-60), Watson (1960-63), Meselson(63-65), and Edsall (65-67) served as Chairmen of the Committee. Because it was clear that biochemistry and molecular biology were vigorous academic endeavors and the approach to research of the members of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology was different from that of the members of the more traditional Department of Biology, the Committee decided to form the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) so that it could become an independent entity and recruit its own faculty. Under the impetus of Paul Doty , the Department was approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on 11 April 1967. Paul Doty was the first Chairman of BMB and Jack Strominger was the first new member of the Department; the other members of BMB were Bloch, Edsall, Gilbert, Guidotti, Meselson, and Watson; Ptashne became a Lecturer in 1968. In 1971, Stephen Harrison and Don Wiley joined the Department, followed by James Wang and Nancy Kleckner in 1977, Tom Maniatis and Doug Melton in 1981, Ernest Peralta in 1989 and Sam Kunes in 1993. Jeremy Knowles became a joint member of Chemistry and of BMB in 1980. After Paul Doty, the following members of BMB served as Chairman : Strominger (1970-73), Watson (1973), Meselson (1974), Bloch (1974-75), Meselson (1975-77), Guidotti (1977-80), Ptashne (1980-83), Wang (1983-85), Maniatis (1985-88), Harrison(1988-92) and Wiley (1992-95).

With approval of the University, plans were made in 1968 for a new building to house members of BMB and of the Chemistry Department; however, funds for the project were not forthcoming. In 1976, Matt Meselson, while chairman of the Department, was able to identify a source of moneys and to convince Henry Rosovsky and Derek Bok of the urgent need for new space for the Department. The result was the construction of the Fairchild Biochemistry building. In 1981 Harrison, Wiley, Ptashne, Wang, Kleckner, Guidotti, Meselson, Doty, Strominger, Maniatis and Melton moved into the building. Ernie Peralta and Sam Kunes came to Fairchild later. Konrad Bloch, although a member of BMB, remained in Conant Laboratory, as did Jeremy Knowles in Mallinckrodt.

Members of BMB were involved in undergraduates courses on biochemistry and molecular biology. John Edsall was a tutor in Biochemical Sciences from 1928 to 1968, and Chairman of the Board of Tutors from 1931 to 1957. Stephen Harrison was the Chairman from 1972 to 2001. Edsall's course on proteins, now MCB 112, has been mentioned above. Konrad Bloch taught biochemistry for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, Chemistry 190, from 1955 to 1974. Jim Watson taught introductory molecular biology as part of Biology 2 in the 1960s; the lectures in the course were the basis for his book The Molecular Biology of the Gene. In 1971, Biochemistry 10, an introduction to biochemistry and molecular biology, was started by Jim Watson and Guido Guidotti as the first undergraduate course of the new Department. The course eventually became Biological Sciences 10 (now Biological Sciences 52) and 11 ( biochemistry was dropped from the curriculum in 2000). Matt Meselson for many years taught the undergraduate genetics course, initially as Biology 140, now Biological Sciences 50. Paul Doty started the course on physical chemistry Chemistry 61, which became MCB 61 and now Biological Sciences 56.

Several members of BMB were awarded the Nobel prize between 1962 and1980 : Jim Watson (1962) and Konrad Bloch (1964) for Physiology and Medicine; Wally Gilbert (1980) for Chemistry. George Wald, who remained in Biology, got the Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1967.

At the time that BMB became a Department in 1967, there remained in Biology a small group of faculty with cellular rather than organismic interest : Lawrence Bogorad, Woody Hastings, Fotis Kafatos, Paul Levine, Keith Porter, Alwin Pappenheimer, John Raper, George Wald and Carroll Williams. Keith Porter, who had come to Biology from the Rockefeller University in 1962, had a major role in promoting the field of cell biology. As Chairman of Biology in the late 1960s, he also oversaw a revision of the undergraduate curriculum with the introduction of a course in cell biology which he taught, Biology 15 (now Biological Sciences 54) and the appearance of a new course on biochemistry, Biology 16, which then became part of Biochemistry 10. Pappenheimer, who came to Biology in 1956, was Chairman of the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences from 1958 to 1964; in 1959, he started an undergraduate course on immunology, Biology 169, now MCB 169. Over a period of 10 years, the group in Biology evolved with the departure of Levine, Porter, Raper and Wald and the arrival of Dan Branton, John Dowling, William Gelbart and Richard Losick. In 1978, Biology split again into Cellular and Developmental Biology (CDB) and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB), with CDB occupying space in the Biological Laboratories. Additional faculty members joined CDB during the next 10 years : Howard Berg, Ray Erikson, Walter Gilbert, Lawrence Goldstein and Markus Meister. Fotis Kafatos was the first Chairman of CDB, followed by Branton, Losick, and Gilbert.

During the 1980s, some of the research interests of BMB and CDB started to overlap in the areas of molecular and developmental biology. In 1988, the graduate admission procedures for the two programs were integrated into a successful program in Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (BMCDB); after the first year of graduate school, the students could choose in which Department to do research. In the early 1990s Andrew McMahon and Elizabeth Robertson came to BMB and CDB as joint appointments in order to bring vertebrate development to Harvard University in Cambridge. In 1994, BMB and CDB were fused into the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology with faculty members in both Fairchild Biochemistry Building and the Biological Laboratories.

updated: 11/09/2012