Cell Biology and Physiology celebrates centennial

The Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis marks its 100th anniversary this month with a series of events, including lectures and a symposium featuring some of today’s most visionary scientific thinkers.

Cell Biology and Physiology is known for leadership and innovation in a variety of sub-specialties of research, including the cell cycle control, cell microscopy and the signaling pathway that underlie important cellular and physiological processes. Many faculty are engaged in active collaborations with clinical colleagues to translate their basic and pre-clinical findings into advances in patient diagnosis and treatment.

A schedule of the lectures and the speakers at the symposium may be found on the department’s website.

The first department head was Joseph Erlanger, MD, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1944 for studies that enabled researchers to identify different types of nerve fibers. The department was then known as the Department of Physiology.

Philip Stahl, who headed the department from 1984 to 2011, says, “The spirit of Erlanger lives on.” He says a research bench important to Erlanger’s experiments is still in the South Building on the Medical Campus. Erlanger had the bench specially anchored to minimize vibratory interference in measurements he was taking.

The department’s name changed to Physiology and Biophysics under its second director, Harvey L. White, MD. Stahl changed the name to Cell Biology and Physiology to reflect the growing convergence of the two fields.

“The cell biologists were moving from studies of fixed (embalmed) cells to using molecular techniques to study the living cell,” Stahl says. “And the physiologists were shifting from the study of blood and organs to the study of cellular and sub-cellular processes.”

Stahl stepped down in March to be succeeded by Helen Piwnica-Worms, PhD, the Gerty T. Cori Professor.

The final day’s events Oct. 28 include a salute to Stahl’s term as department head led by former faculty member Edwin McCleskey, PhD, now a scientific officer for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Stahl says his proudest accomplishments as head include the recruitment of six “outstanding” female faculty members, three of whom have gone on to become department heads.

“On that last day and throughout the centennial, we’ll both celebrate our department’s history and take a look at what’s to come,” Piwnica-Worms says. “For example, our department is very active in the new Biomed 21 interdisciplinary research centers, including the BRIGHT (Bridging Research with Imaging, Genomics and High-Throughput) Institute and the Center for the Investigation of Membrane Excitability Disorders.

“Those centers are increasing our access both to collaborations with scientists in other disciplines and to state-of-the-art technology for research,” she says.

According to Piwnica-Worms, a major initiative is to build the department’s capabilities in cell imaging.

“The department’s tradition of generating interesting and exciting scientific insights clearly will continue uninterrupted into its second century,” she says.