Facts & History

Home to scientific and medical breakthroughs
The division was established in 1930, formally uniting faculty from the clinical and basic sciences. Before 1930, faculty in such areas as anatomy, bacteriology, biology, physiology, and pathology were housed in the Ogden Graduate School of Science.

The first professor of medicine, Frank Billings, was appointed in 1905. The University of Chicago Medicine has been at the forefront of medical care since 1927, when we first opened our doors to patients and founded the medical school. In 1968, we renamed the medical school the Pritzker School of Medicine in recognition of the generous support of the Pritzker family.

Today, we constitute one of the most unique communities within an academic environment: a single division that delivers undergraduate, graduate, medical, and postgraduate biological sciences education together with outstanding patient care and world-renowned research. This configuration, coupled with our location on the University's main campus, encourages interdisciplinary research, educational partnerships, and collaborations.

Firsts in the Biological Sciences Division
From advancements in medical treatments to the discovery of new species and fields of study, we have been home to a number of innovations in the biological sciences. The timeline below takes you through some of the major milestones in our history.

Botanist Henry Chandler Cowles’s study of changes to the Indiana Dunes along the southern shore of Lake Michigan opens a new field of inquiry in the natural sciences: ecology.

Pathologist Howard Ricketts discovers the organism that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever before his death in 1910, providing the basis for treating the disease. Today the Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory at Argonne National Laboratory is a regional biocontainment laboratory that supports research for the detection, prevention, and elimination of anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, influenza, plague, and emerging infectious diseases.

During research for his PhD dissertation in zoology, Ernest Everett Just, PhD’16, makes an important discovery about cell cleavage, showing that the sperm entry point determines the first cleavage plane in the egg of the marine annelid Nereis limbata.

Medical scientist Oswald Robertson pioneers the idea of blood banks in the “blood depots” he established during service in France with the US Army Medical Corps. Robertson later becomes chair of the University of Chicago Department of Medicine.

The world’s first sleep laboratory opens under the direction of Nathaniel Kleitman, PhD. Kleitman wrote the first textbook in the emerging field, Sleep and Wakefulness (1939). In 1953, Kleitman collaborated with graduate student Eugene Aserinsky to report the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) and its links to dreaming.

Walter Palmer, MD, PhD, establishes the nation’s first full-time academic gastroenterology section.

Medical researcher Leon O. Jacobson, MD’39, performs the first bone marrow transplant. He discovered he could save a mouse whose bone marrow and spleen had been destroyed by transplanting donated spleen tissue into the mouse. The procedure now helps thousands of patients with cancer and other diseases each year.

Cancer researcher Charles B. Huggins treats patients suffering from advanced prostate cancer by removing the hormone the cancers needed to grow. Hormonal treatment has since become a mainstay of care for several types of cancer, including breast and gynecological cancers.

Research at the University of Chicago leads to fluoridation of water nationwide.

Building on the work of cancer researcher Charles B. Huggins, Elwood Jensen and fellow medical researcher Eugene Desombre identify the precise mechanism through which hormones drive cancer—by binding to a receptor protein in cells. The finding opens a new therapeutic front in breast cancer, leading to targeted treatments credited with saving many lives each year.

Alan Rechtschaffen, PhD, and Gerry Vogel, PhD, publish a paper on narcolepsy, the first true sleep disorder to be clinically defined.

Biochemist Donald F. Steiner, SM’56, MD’56, discovers proinsulin, the first “pro-hormone” and precursor to insulin. The finding leads to the synthetic production of human insulin, markedly improving therapy for diabetes sufferers, and lays the groundwork for improved understanding of how other proteins in the body are made.

Janet Rowley, MD, finds that a particular type of leukemia results when two chromosomes abnormally exchange genetic material. Her findings help establish the genetic causes of cancer.

Biochemist Eugene Goldwasser isolates erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone behind red blood cell formation. The discovery allows then start-up Amgen to identify and clone the gene behind EPO and then employ “recombinant” engineering to develop the first blockbuster drug of the biotech age, which has since treated millions with anemia.

The University unveils the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, the first academic institute dedicated to clinical medical ethics. Its work aims to improve physicians’ skills and performance in decision-making and caring for patients.

University of Chicago Medicine physicians perform the first successful living-donor liver transplant in the United States.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno’s discoveries of previously unknown dinosaur species on several continents contribute to our understanding of the dinosaur family tree and to the larger question of how evolution works over millions of years.

Robert Daum, MD, describes the first cases of community acquired methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Eve Van Cauter, MD, discovers the links between chronic partial sleep deprivation and hormonal and metabolic abnormalities that mimic aging and metabolic syndrome.

In the early 2000s, cancer researcher Wei-Jen Tang discovers the structure of edema factor, one of the three toxins that make the anthrax bacterium deadly, an essential step in finding treatment for the infection.

Vertebrate paleontologist Neil Shubin discovers the 375-million-year-old Tiktaalik roseae, better known as the "fishapod," the first fish that ventured out of water onto land. 

Medical oncologist Funmi Olopade showed that women of African ancestry are more likely to be diagnosed with a more virulent form of breast cancer than women of European ancestry. Olopade received a McArthur Prize for this discovery

Methylnaltrexone, a drug developed to relieve one of the major side effects of pain therapy for cancer patients, received marketing approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration on April 24, 2008, for use in the treatment of opioid-induced bowel disorders in patients receiving palliative care for advanced illness such as cancer. Invented in 1979 by the late University of Chicago pharmacologist Leon Goldberg, the drug was studied and developed by faculty within our department of anesthesia and critical care.

Robert Grossman developed the Bionimbus Protected Data Cloud, the first cloud-based computing system approved by the National Institutes of Health to process data from the Cancer Genome Atlas, the agency’s flagship cancer genetics study. In late 2014, Grossman became director of the Genomic Data Commons, an NIH-funded project based on Bionimbus that will be the nation’s most comprehensive data facility.

One hundred million years ago, the Sahara was home to the largest predatory dinosaur known to have existed: Spinosaurus. German scientist Ernst Stromer unearthed the original bones of Spinosaurus at the turn of the 20th century, but they were lost in World War II. The giant dinosaur—larger than a T. rex—then eluded scientists until 2014, when an international team, including UChicago paleontologists Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno, analyzed newly acquired fossils, remains from museum collections, and historical records to render the dinosaur’s skeleton and reveal it as the first truly semi-aquatic dinosaur.

UChicago neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale and Caroline Albertin, PhD’16, along with a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, sequenced the genome of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), the first cephalopod ever to be fully sequenced.

Biologist Zhe-Xi Luo and doctoral student David Grossnickle, along with a team of other researchers from UChicago and the Beijing Museum of Natural History, discovered fossils of the earliest-known tree-dwelling and subterranean mammals in China. Agilodocodon scansoriusis the earliest-known tree-dwelling mammaliaform (extinct relative of modern mammals), and Docofossor brachydactylus is the earliest-known subterranean mammaliaform. The fossils of these shrew-sized animals suggest that early mammals were as ecologically diverse as modern mammals.

Surgeons at the University of Chicago Medicine were the first in the nation to successfully complete back-to-back triple-organ transplants to replace their failing hearts, livers and kidneys. These complex procedures were performed by Valluvan Jeevanandam, MD, Talia Baker, MD, and Yolanda Becker, MD.