Our department has had a rich and distinguished history since its inception as the Department of Pharmacology in 1906. The department’s philosophy was that because pharmacology engendered the overlap of several of the biological sciences, trainees needed a broad range of basic information and research skills to address fundamental and innovative concepts.

The department leaders emphasized an open scientific environment where there were no boundaries to the exchange of ideas between students, postdoctoral fellows or faculty. This openness and sharing was and is the core mission of the department.

Extensive instruction in biochemistry and the promotion of interdisciplinary collaborations were vital components to the department structure, and its scientific legacy was extensive, including the association of ten Nobel laureates, two of whom were department heads.

Under their leadership and example, the department mentored countless undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and also launched the careers of numerous investigators who eventually joined the ranks of the most prestigious scientific centers.

Major contributions

Throughout its history the department has made major discoveries, including pioneering Nobel electrophysiological experiments, which identified classes of nerve fibers leading to the understanding of pain. These studies were the forerunner to today’s field of electrophysiology. And they tie in to the revolutionary pain treatment with a new class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory therapeutics discovered here.

Experiments elucidating the mechanism of action of penicillin and commonly used antifungal agents also were first described in the department.

Recently a recombinant human therapeutic to facilitate assisted reproduction was invented here and represents the first marketable clinical agent developed at Washington University.

These findings, in addition to major contributions in fundamental biochemistry and neurophysiology, were the hallmarks of the department.

New era, new name

Today, research in the department has grown to represent a broad range of contemporary issues in developmental biology,  and as a result of this shift in research focus, the department was renamed Developmental Biology in January 2008.

While the emphasis of the department is now on issues of embryonic development, aging and regenerative biology and physiology, its fundamental core values are unchanged. The undaunted quest for innovative cutting edge problem-solving in an open, interactive training environment is an uncompromising standard for our department.

Carl and Gerty Cori

Carl and Gerty Cori arrived at the School of Medicine in 1931 to join the Department of Pharmacology. In 1947, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on the catalytic conversion of glycogen. Six other Nobelists received training under their auspices.

Learn more about Nobelists at the School of Medicine »

Oliver H. Lowry

Biochemist Oliver H. Lowry developed a simple method to measure the amount of protein in a solution, which generated the most highly cited paper in history.

Lowry joined Washington University School of Medicine in 1947 as a professor of pharmacology and head of the department. He was appointed Dean of the School of Medicine in 1955. In 1979, Lowry became a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology. 

Women in the department

Helen Tredway Graham joined the Department of Pharmacology in 1926. She conducted research on nerve physiology early in her career. At age 60, she switched her research interests to study histamine. She discovered its function in mast cells and developed sensitive methods for its measurement.

Gerty Cori was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1931 her husband, Carl Cori, was appointed chairman of the Department of Pharmacology. Together they studied carbohydrate metabolism. 

Gerty Cori was made an associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology in 1943. She was promoted to the rank of professor of Biological Chemistry in July 1947, only months before she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Department name change

In 2008, the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology changed its name to the Department of Developmental Biology, reflecting a shift in the department’s research focus.

Heads of the department

Learn about the past and current heads of the department.

Washington University zebrafish facility

Learn about one of the largest zebrafish facilities in the world.

School of Medicine history

Learn more about the School of Medicine’s history throughout the years.