The Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School was established in 1966 by Dr. Stephen W. Kuffler. Kuffler had previously recruited a group of brilliant young scientists to his laboratory at Johns Hopkins, including David Hubel, Torsten Wiesel, Edwin Furshpan, and David Potter. In 1959 they all moved to the Department of Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School to start a new research unit in neuroscience, and were soon joined by a biochemist, Edward Kravitz. In 1966 the unit became a separate Department of Neurobiology.
A major reason for their success was Kuffler’s innovative idea of combining physiology, biochemistry, histology, neuroanatomy, and electron microscopy in a single group. In this way he shifted the focus of research from techniques found in separate departments to a study of the brain as a system, inventing a new field that Kuffler called Neurobiology. It was the first such department in the world, and it created a model of cross-disciplinary research that has characterized neurobiology ever since.
The Department emphasized scholarship and education from the start, with a rich tradition of superb teaching, daily research seminars, and critical analysis of data. Many young scientists who thrived in this atmosphere went on to seed neuroscience programs throughout this country and abroad. The expansion of neuroscience research over the past generation, led in part by those who trained at Harvard Neurobiology, has been astounding.
Among the major breakthroughs during the early era were the description of receptive field organization in the retina and visual cortex; discovery of critical periods during development; electrophysiological analysis of excitatory and inhibitory chemical synaptic transmission; characterization of GABA and other amine neurotransmitters; the first demonstration of peptidergic transmission; discovery of electrical excitation and inhibition; demonstration that glia in the brain modulate extracellular ion concentrations; and the maintenance of nerve cells in long-term cultures. A highlight of this period was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1981 to David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel for their work on visual processing. Nobel Prizes were later awarded to Linda Buck and to Rod MacKinnon, who had been faculty in the Department.
Kuffler was succeeded as Chair by Torsten Wiesel in 1973, and then by David Potter in 1982. Faculty hired during this period opened up new areas of neurobiology and went on to lead neuroscience departments and important initiatives at other universities. These faculty include Elio Raviola, Zach Hall, John Nicholls, Ann Stuart (the department’s first female faculty member), Jack McMahan, John Hildebrand, Paul Patterson, Story Landis, and Tom Jessell. Gerald Fischbach assumed the Chair in 1990, followed by Carla Shatz who served from 2000 to 2007. These two expanded the Department considerably, hiring and retaining new faculty such as John Assad, Bruce Bean, Jonathan Cohen, David Corey, Lisa Goodrich, Chenghua Gu, Wade Regehr, Bernardo Sabatini, Charles Weitz, Rachel Wilson, and Gary Yellen. A department that had been like Grand Central Station—a wonderful place to pass through—began to grow again as faculty built sustained research programs and stayed to mentor the next generation.
In 2008, Michael Greenberg became the Department Chair. Building on a strong base, he brought faculty who expanded the research scope of the department, including Bob Datta, Chris Harvey, Pascal Kaeser, Dragana Rogulja, Corey Harwell, David Ginty, Matthew Pecot and Jan Drugowitsch. He also worked to integrate Harvard Neurobiology with other strong neuroscience research groups—at Boston Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Eye & Ear, and the Harvard Center for Brain Science—by developing a joint seminar series and making joint appointments for certain key senior faculty. With these new recruits, the department retains its multi-disciplinary approach, expanding its strength in molecular biology, genetics, genomics, super-resolution imaging, and behavioral studies.
The department has also turned its attention toward neurological diseases, pairing mechanisms of basic processes in neurons and the brain with the disorders that arise when these processes go awry. These basic neuroscience studies hold the keys for the development of therapies and preventative approaches for many neurological disorders. At this point, the Harvard Department of Neurobiology is the strongest it's ever been, with 30 primary or second faculty carrying out research programs that range from structural biology of single proteins to psychophysics of visual perception, in organisms from Drosophila to nonhuman primates.