History of the Department of Biology

The Early Years

Georgetown University 20 century

In the first half of the 20th century, the Department of Biology was located in buildings that no longer exist on campus, near New South and in barracks outside of the main gates.  The Biology faculty was small, who were responsible for the entire Biology curriculum taught to the then all male undergraduates and the several courses taught to the students in the School of Nursing.  The faculty members consisted of Dr. Bill Taylor, Dr. Dick Weber, Dr. Sandy Vernick, Mr. Tom O’Keefe, Mr. John Francis, Mr. James Carino, Mr. George Ferguson, Rev.. Art Coniff, S.J., Rev.. Mark Bauer, S.J., and Rev.. James Harley, S.J.  Alumni from that era were so impressed with the teaching of Drs. Taylor and Weber that they funded a memorial scholarship in their honor, which is awarded annually to the rising senior(s) with the highest GPA in their class. 

The Reiss Science Building and the Growth of Biology 

Reiss Science Building

In 1962, construction of the Reiss Science Building was completed and named after Raymond Reiss (C’19), President of the Yard (a former student government position).  In 1963, Prof. George Chapman became chairman of the Department, a position that he held for 27 years.  He was recruited to Georgetown to reinvent Biology, and he was responsible for initiating the graduate program and the senior thesis requirement as well as for increasing the faculty to 14 members.  Two faculty members whom he recruited, Drs. Joseph Neale and Edward Barrows, are still active here in teaching and research; other faculty members have retired, passed away, or moved on to other institutions: Rev. Robert Baumiller, Katherine Bick, Rich Blanquet, Peter Chen, Rita Colwell, Douglas Eagles, Irving Grey, Ellen Henderson, Thomas King, Otto Landman, Aryan Namboodiri, David Nishioka, Sigmond Norr, Samuel Pancake, David Robinson, Robert Rose, Don Spoon, Phil Sze, Terese Tansey, and Diane Taylor.  Incredibly, Dr. Chapman then retired in July of 2011, after nearly 50 years of teaching at Georgetown (61 years in all). Just five years later in 2016, Dr. Chapman passed away at the age of 91. The faculty members of the Department named the Chapman medal in his honor, and this award is given to the graduating student(s) with the most outstanding research project(s). 

Research and Teaching

George S Melchor

In 1990, Dr. Joseph Neale assumed the leadership of the Department with a focus on increasing its research profile while maintaining excellence in teaching.  As a Department head, Dr. Neale recruited several of the current faculty members, including Drs. Ronda Rolfes, Martha Weiss, Janet Mann, Anne Rosenwald, Matthew Hamilton, Heidi Elmendorf and Steve Singer, to join him in this endeavor.  As a collective unit, the biology Department obtained funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support undergraduate research opportunities. The funding continues to promote research today and is entering its second decade of funding. Dr. Neale was succeeded as chair by Profs. Ellen Henderson (2000-2006) and Doug Eagles (2006-2009), who continued promoting excellence in teaching and research.  They were also instrumental in the creation of several new undergraduate majors within the Department of Biology (Biology of Global Health, Neurobiology, and Environmental Biology), as well as the critical planning for the new Regents Hall science building. New teaching faculty members were added to the Department with the hiring of Michael Hickey, Maya Patel, Erika Johnson, Jennifer Fox, and Elena Tilli-Shiffert.  Additional faculty members were also recruited during this time, including Drs. Elena Casey, Peter Armbruster, Maria Donoghue, Chris Elsik, and Gina Wimp. 

Regents Hall

Regents hall

 In 2009, Steve Singer became chair and led the Department in the move to the new research and teaching spaces in Regents Hall in the summer of 2012.  Regents Hall now supports a faculty of 31 members and has space to allow the recruitment of an addition 4-5 faculty members.  Dr. Singer has increased support for teaching and research by recruiting new faculty members whose primary responsibilities are in teaching, including Drs. Amy Walsh, Manus Patten, Tigwa Davis, and Sarah Miller.  He has also helped to expand the Biology faculty through the recruitment of Drs. Shweta Bansal, Jeffrey Huang, and Shaun Brinsmade. 

With the expansion of the programs and faculty to 31 members, the Department of Biology now supports about 32 graduate students seeking the Ph.D., has grant support of about $2 million per year, and instructs about 400 undergraduate students pursuing one of the four departmental majors.   The Department of Biology provides a rich and rigorous study of Biology and provides cutting edge research to graduate and undergraduate students.