Department of
Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology


Department of Biological Chemistry

When Harvard Medical School was first opened, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse took charge of the work of the Department of Chemistry until 1783, at which time Dr. Aaron Dexter was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica. Dr. Dexter lectured at Cambridge first and later in both Cambridge and Boston, lecturing to university and medical students.

In 1812 a lectureship was established of Botany and Materia Medica, and the Professor of Chemistry was thus relieved of a part of his work.

Later, in 1857, the occupant of the chair of chemistry was named University Professor of Chemistry in the Medical School, and from this date on there was no more connection through the Department of Chemistry between the College in Cambridge and the Medical School in Boston. In 1898, Dr. Franz Pfaff started lectures in Pharmacology, and in 1905, Drs. Carl Alsberg and L.J. Henderson gave the first work in Biological Chemistry. The full development of Biological Chemistry took place in the early and mid-twentieth centuries. Harvard was not ready for it before then, and only the tentative beginnings took place. (Countway Library Archives)

Dr. Otto Folin was appointed in 1907 as Associate Professor and became the first Hamilton Kuhn Professor in 1909. During his entire career Professor Folin was fascinated by problems of measurement, the quantitative approach to techniques for examining biological substances. One of Folin's major contributions was to stimulate interest in biochemical research among medical students and physicians from far and near. Among these, two (J.B. Sumner and Edward A. Doisy) are Nobel Laureats.

Professor Folin's death on October 25, 1934, was memorialized at a service that was to have been a celebration to honor the 25th anniversary of his appointment as Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry.

Department of Pharmacology

The development of Pharmacology was slow and complicated. As Dr. A.J Clark pointed out in 1938, "Pharmacology is one of the youngest of the medical sciences; it is, indeed, a growth chiefly of the twentieth century and in consequence has very little history." Only three discoveries of major importance to pharmacology were made in the nineteenth century – namely, anaesthetics, antiseptics and endocrine therapy. Experience later supported the view that Harvard played a crucial role in the development of pharmacology. At the one hundredth anniversary of the Harvard Medical School in 1883, Oliver Wendell Holmes, among other trenchant remarks, said that "it would be better if all drugs were sunk to the bottom of the sea, but worse for the fishes."

The modern era of pharmacology at Harvard began with the arrival of Reid Hunt in 1913. At that time his work on the thyroid and most of his work on the choline derivatives had been completed, but remained the basis of much that he worked on and taught at Harvard. Hunt was appointed as Professor of Pharmacology and Department Head in September, 1913 and Professor Emeritus in 1936. Reid Hunt died in 1938. (Medicine at Harvard – The First Three Hundred Years: Beecher and Altschuke, 1977; p.255)

The Merger (Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology)

With Charles Richardson, Chair of Biological Chemistry, 1978 – 1987 and Irving Goldberg, Chair of Pharmacology, 1972 - 1986, both deciding to resign the post of Chairman of their respective departments almost simultaneously, came the decision to merge the two departments to form the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology (BCMP), Chaired by Christopher Walsh, 1987 – 1995. The position was filled by interim chairs, Steve Beverley and Kevin Struhl from 1995 until the appointment of the present chairman, Ed Harlow in October 1998.