Department of Biological Chemistry

When Harvard Medical School 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 first lectured in Cambridge, and later in both Cambridge and Boston to both 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. In 1857, the occupant of the chair of chemistry was named University Professor of Chemistry in the Medical School, and after that date the Department of Chemistry no longer bridged the College in Cambridge to 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. Dr. Otto Folin was appointed Associate Professor in 1907 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, two of whom (J.B. Sumner and Edward A. Doisy) became Nobel Laureates. 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 for much of his career 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. 

The Merger (Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology)

When Charles Richardson, Chair of Biological Chemistry, 1978 – 1987 and Irving Goldberg, Chair of Pharmacology, 1972 - 1986, both stepped down from their posts almost simultaneously, the two Departments merged to create the current Department of BCMP. Christopher T. Walsh was recruited to serve as the first chair of the new Department in 1987. His leadership expanded the domain of the Department from its core strength in molecular mechanisms in replication and transcription to include structural and chemical biology by recruiting faculty with expertise in NMR and X-ray crystallography to HMS for the first time.  When Dr. Walsh stepped down in 1995, Steve Beverley and Kevin Struhl acted as interim chairs until the appointment of Ed Harlow, who served admirably as chair from 1998 - 2009.  Stephen Harrison served as interim chair until Stephen Blacklow assumed his current position as Chair of BCMP in 2012. 

The Department now has 36 faculty members: 25 full professors, 4 Associate Professors, and 7 Assistant Professors, with 16 full and 2 assistant professors on Quad. The Department’s research activities benefit from close partnerships with basic science and clinical departments at both HMS and its core teaching hospitals, with off-quad members of BCMP clustered at Children’s Hospital (BCH) and the DFCI. BCMP faculty have made seminal contributions in several fields within the overall area of molecular, structural, and chemical biology.  Seven are members of the National Academy of Sciences and four are HHMI investigators.