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Indiana University Bloomington

Department of Biology

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History of the Indiana University Department of Biology

"Where did all the departments go?"

by Susan Green and Walter Konetzka, IU Biology Alumni Newsletter, Spring 1983

When Jordan Hall was opened in 1955 the Departments of Bacteriology, Botany, and Zoology finally came together after years of inhabiting separate buildings on campus.  There were those who worried how the departments would coexist–animals eat plants and bacteria eat everything–but it finally became obvious that the departments had common interests that could best be served by some sort of confederation.  Frank Young in his "Brief History of Biology at Indiana University" describes the move away from separate departments in these terms.

The prominent research issues of the day were more often biological than zoological or botanical or microbiological; molecular and genetic biology nurtured by sophisticated biochemistry and the elucidation of the architecture and replicative mechanisms of DNA was revolutionizing studies of the genetic control of differentiation.  A new breed of biologists, few of whom considered themselves botanists, zoologists or bacteriologists per se, was emerging.  A new generation of students, conditioned by modernized textbooks, was coming out of our high schools.  Our conventional departments were being challenged by these circumstances and the simple kind of informal cooperation that had served us well no longer seemed able to meet the challenge.

The Division of Biological Sciences was instituted in 1963 with Tracy Sonneborn as acting director.  The Departments of Bacteriology, Botany, and Zoology still retained considerable autonomy and awarded degrees at all levels, but the Division became responsible for curricula, graduate fellowships, promotion and tenure, common facilities, and new faculty appointments.  The Department of Anatomy-Physiology, first separated from Zoology in 1904, was a part of the Division at this time although its teaching and research were tied to the medical program.

In the late sixties and early seventies major revisions were made in the undergraduate curriculum.  The Core Curriculum, or BS in Biological Sciences, a rigorous and highly experimental approach to biology, was instituted for strongly motivated students.  The new "S" courses were highly integrated and taught from the standpoint of levels of organization rather than departmental affiliation.  All "S" courses contained information on animals, plants, and bacteria, and were taught at the cellular, genetic, developmental, physiological, or population level.  Graduates of the "Core" were accepted and funded by graduate, medical, and dental schools in the United States.  They continue to be highly competitive to this day.

The AB in Biological Sciences followed close on the heels of the BS and, in fact, was patterened after it.  Existing departmental courses were divided into categories, again at levels of organization.  Students then had the flexibility of a program which allowed them to choose courses from every department.  Although the departmental degrees still remained, the vast majority of undergraduates were now Biology majors.  From 160 Biology majors in 1968, the numbers rose to 1200 in 1973.  Current enrollment [1983] is now 845.  In the last 10 years, approximately 60% of these students have have entered an advanced degree program–medical, dental, law, MBA, allied health science, or graduate school.

There have also been improvements in the operational aspects of the various departments for we then had a common stock room, instrument center, and electron microscopy facilities.  New faculty appointments were made which were interdepartmental.  We no longer hired zoologists or botanists, but molecular biologists who worked with bacteria or geneticists who used fruit flies in their research.  Departmental affiliations were disappearing.

In 1977, after debates comparable to the Mideast Peace Talks, the Division became the Department of Biology, and Anatomy-Physiology moved to the Medical Sciences Program.  Graduate programs were reorganized to reflect changes in faculty.  The Department of Biology instituted graduate degrees in Genetics; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology–in addition to degrees in Microbiology, Plant Sciences, and Zoology.  (You will notice that somewhere in this evolution Bacteriology became Microbiology and Botany became Plant Sciences; that is called progress.)

Today [1983] despite many misgivings the amalgamation works well with few remnants of the former parochialism.  Currently the Department has 162 graduate students: 28 in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; 21 in Genetics; 23 in Microbiology; 41 in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology; 16 in Plant Sciences; 21 in Zoology; and 12 in the Master of Arts for Teachers.  The faculty numbers 48, supervising 51 postdoctoral students and research associates, and 25 staff members.  Helen Arthur still runs the whole building.

2010-2011 numbers:

  • 1600+ undergraduate Biology majors
  • Graduate students in 3 programs
    • Evolution, Ecology and Behavior: 74
      and 4 in Plant Sciences, and 2 in Zoology
    • Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology: 37
      and 9 in Genetics
    • Microbiology: 39
  • 61 faculty
  • 145 postdoctoral students and research associates
  • 78 staff

Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology was renamed Genome, Cell, and Developmental Biology in 2013.

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