A Brief History of the Department of Cell Biology

Matthew Scharff, MD, and Arthur Skoultchi, PhD

The Department of Cell Biology was established in 1961, eight years after the founding of the College of Medicine. Dr. Harry Eagle was recruited from the National Institutes of Health to form a new Division of Biology which would include four new Departments (Cell Biology, Genetics, Developmental Biology, and Molecular Biology). At that time, the still quite new College of Medicine had an excellent research core of traditional basic science departments (Anatomy, Biochemistry, Pharmacology, Microbiology and Physiology) with distinguished faculty and it had already achieved a significant national presence. However, the chairs of Medicine, Neurology and Pharmacology (Drs. Irving London, Sol Korey, Alfred Gilman) and other members of the faculty leadership realized that a revolution was occurring in biology with the emergence of the central roles of genetics and molecular biology. They persuaded the Dean that a new infusion of faculty and with somewhat different perspectives was needed. Money was raised to construct the Ullmann building to house the new departments as well as to provide for expansions of some existing departments.

Dr. Harry Eagle, Founder of the Department of Cell Biology

Dr. Eagle was a microbiologist and immunologist who shifted directions and became the most cited scientist in the world for his description of Eagle’s medium which allowed investigators to grow animal cells in in vitro culture. His addition of penicillin and streptomycin to the culture medium also made it possible to carry out experiments with animal cells on the laboratory bench rather than in sterile hoods. This simple change in tissue culture practice had a profound impact as it enabled technical approaches that were until then only practiced in bacteria genetics and bacteria molecular biology. Dr. Eagle also had an outstanding record as a science administrator, having reorganized and upgraded the entire National Cancer Institute and subsequently recruited exceptional young scientists to the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

While still at the NIH, he decided that the best way to study the molecular biology of animal cells was to infect them with viruses, since the large amounts of viral proteins and nucleic acids produced during infection allowed their study with the then limited tools available. While not a virologist himself, Eagle recruited junior faculty who applied this approach in their research. Importantly, his first recruit was Dr. Jacob Maizel, who shortly thereafter invented SDS gel electrophoresis and showed it could be used to separate and study proteins and nucleic acids purely based on size. The development of SDS gel electrophoresis was a technological breakthrough that enabled the faculty in the Department of Cell Biology and other departments to make new, often paradigm changing discoveries. These achievements put the Department of Cell Biology and other Einstein basic science departments on the map and attracted first-rate fellows and visiting scientists to the Department and the College. Dr. Eagle also demanded a high level of communication and cooperation amongst the faculty and he promoted this by establishing shared common equipment rooms and core facilities.

Dr. Eagle congratulating Dr. Scharff on his receipt of the NY Academy of Medicine Award for the Distinguished Contributions to Biomedical Science in 1990

The Department moved to the newly completed Ullmann building in 1964. In 1978, it relocated again to its current location when the new Chanin Institute for Cancer Research opened. Dr. Matthew Scharff assumed the chairmanship in 1972 and served until 1983. He was followed by Dr. Jonathan Warner and then by Dr. Arthur Skoultchi in 1998. In November 2022, Dr. Ulrich Steidl became the 5th Chair as the department enters a new phase of multi-disciplinary integration and growth.

Since its inception, the Department of Cell Biology has graduated 198 graduate students (56 MSTP; 142 PhD) and trained more than 300 postdoctoral fellows who have made major contributions to Science and Medicine.