Discover the early history of the KU School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The KU School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry—now known as the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology—originated on the Lawrence campus of the University of Kansas. In the medical school's early days, the Kansas City campus offered only clinical training. The basic science portion of the curriculum (currently the basic science years) was offered on the main campus in Lawrence. As early as 1909, this split of the sciences and clinical training was identified as an issue, noted by Abraham Flexner in his research and visit in preparation for his seminal report on medical education. Nevertheless, this split curriculum remained the case until 1962, when the first two years of the medical curriculum transitioned to the Kansas City campus and the full 4-year curriculum was offered on the current medical center campus.
Dr. Santiago Grisolia (member of the faculty from 1954-1995; named professor emeritus, 1995, tribute by Vicente Rubio Zamora) was appointed as the chair of the Department of Biochemistry in 1962. The department offices and labs were located on the 4th floor of Wahl Hall East with some extension into Wahl Hall West. Dr. Grisolia headed a department that added Dr. Joe Kimmel (1963-1985), Dr. Harvey Fisher (1963-2017, ACS Award), Dr. Dan Carr (1963-1999) and Dr. David Cohn (1963-1999). Fisher and Cohn were located at the Kansas City, Missouri VA hospital. In the next few years, Dr. Archie Murdock (1964-1999), Dr. Milton Noelken (1967-2002), Dr. Wilford Arnold (1971-2011), Dr. Richard Silverstein (1972-), Dr. Joan Grunwald (1972-1976) and Dr. Helen Maguire (1973-1977) joined the faculty.
In 1973, Dr. Grisolia stepped down as chair, and Dr. Kurt Ebner (1974-1998; professor emeritus, 1998, obituary) was recruited from Oklahoma State University and appointed as the next chair in 1974. Dr. Ebner brought Dr. Billy Hudson (1974-2002) with him from Oklahoma State University. In 1975, the department added four new faculty, which included Dr. Allen Rawitch (1975-2016; vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies 2000-2015; professor emeritus, 2016, obituary), Dr. Kin Ping Wong (1975-81), Dr. George Helmkamp (1975-2008) and Dr. Lynwood Yarbrough (1975-2007). In 1978, Dr. Jack Halsey (1978-2000) joined the department, and in 1981 Drs. James Calvet (1981-current; university distinguished professor, 2017) and Radha Padmanabhan (1981-2002) joined the department.
Dr. Glen Andrews joined the faculty in 1984 and was named university distinguished professor in 2009 (university distinguished professor emeritus, 2013). In 1986, Dr. Hideaki Nagase (1986-2000) joined the faculty. In 1992, Dr. Mark Fisher (1992-2018, obituary) was added to the faculty and in 1996 Dr. Hiroaki Serizawa (1996-2003) was added to the faculty. In 1998, Dr. Kenneth Peterson (1998-current) was added to the faculty.
Upon Dr. Ebner’s retirement as chair in 1994, Dr. Milton Noelkin served as interim chair before Dr. Billy Hudson was appointed as chair of the department in October 1994. When Dr. Hudson moved to Vanderbilt University at the end of 2001, Dr. Rawitch served as interim chair for about a year. When the Stowers Institute for Medical Research was established in Kansas City in 2001, Drs. Joan Conaway (2001-2022) and Ron Conaway (2001-2022) were added to the department as affiliate faculty members.
In 2002, Dr. Gerald Carlson (2002-2018; professor emeritus, 2018) was recruited from the University of Missouri-Kansas City to serve as the new chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 2004, faculty members Dr. Liskin Swint-Kruse, Dr. Alexey Ladokhin and Dr. Aron Fenton (2004-2023) joined the faculty and Dr. Jennifer Gerton became an affiliate faculty member at the Stowers Institute. In 2005, Dr. Todd Holyoak (2005-2011) also joined the department.
In 2007, many of the department laboratories and the main office moved to the new Hemenway Life Sciences Innovation Center, although the x-ray crystallography laboratory remained in Wahl Hall West and some faculty maintained labs in the Kidney Institute, located in Wahl Hall East. Additional faculty appointments under Dr. Carlson included Dr. Joseph Fontes (2007), Dr. Chad Slawson, (2011), Dr. Christy Hagan (2015) and Dr. Bret Freudenthal (2015).
In 2018, with the retirement of Dr. Carlson as chair, Dr. Liskin Swint-Kruse was named interim chair of the department and subsequently appointed as chair of the department in 2019. The most recent faculty additions include Dr. Jeroen Roelofs (2019) and Dr. Lejla Zubcevic (2020).
The research interests and projects of department members have expanded and diversified from metabolism, protein structure/function and molecular endocrinology to include many areas of molecular structure and function related to human disease. This is reflected in the research interests of currently active faculty as described on their department web pages. Over the years, the faculty of the department introduced many biochemical and molecular biological techniques to the medical center, which were ultimately integrated into the research of many of the other basic science departments. The department established and managed several core lab facilities that provided services used by many researchers at the medical center, including protein and nucleic acid sequencing, peptide synthesis, mass spectrometry and fluorescence analysis. Members of the department, notably Dr. Calvet, were important in the development of the internationally recognized Jared Grantham Kidney Institute.
The faculty of the biochemistry department have been very active in both medical and graduate education. From 1962-2006, the department was responsible for teaching the first-year Medical Biochemistry course. During this time, our department developed and introduced small group clinical correlation sessions into the medical curriculum, a concept later adopted by most of the other basic science departments. Dr. Rawitch was involved in the planning and implementation of the medical student academic societies, which facilitate both student-student and student-faculty extracurricular interactions, and was the founding director of one of the Wahl societies in 1999. Several members of the faculty were active in curriculum development and the evolution of medical education, including two implementations of an integrated curriculum that were inaugurated in 2006 and 2017. Notably, Drs. Helmkamp and Calvet were heavily involved in the implementation of the 2006 curriculum, and Dr. Fontes served as Phase One director for the 2017 ACE curriculum. Over the years, members of our department have chaired the Curriculum Committee/Education Council of the School of Medicine. Our department was involved in the development and administration of a Medical Biochemistry Question Bank, a computer-based pool of medical biochemistry questions relating to the National Board of Medical Examiners Step 1 Exam. At its peak, this edited question pool was used by over 75 other medical schools.
In graduate education, in addition to our core Ph.D. program, our department developed an early M.D./Ph.D. program and produced several of the early M.D./Ph.D. graduates from KU Medical Center. Members of the department played important roles in the planning and implementation of the Integrated Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences (IGPBS) for first-year basic science graduate students in the School of Medicine in 2002; Dr. Swint-Kruse served as associate director of this program from 2011-2018.
In addition to their roles in teaching and research, members of the biochemistry faculty have been active in both service and administrative roles in the School of Medicine over the years with several faculty serving as assistant or associate dean positions in both student affairs and research, as well as roles in the higher administration of the medical center. Members of the faculty have also been active in faculty governance in both the faculty council of the School of Medicine and the KU Medical Center Faculty Assembly. In 2010, the department premiered the annual Heartland Undergraduate Biochemistry (HUB) Research Forum under the direction of Drs. Carlson and Fenton. This event brings in regional undergraduate researchers and their faculty advisors to present their research and attend a lecture by and meet with an internationally renowned scientist. Other community outreach includes visits to regional undergraduate and high school campuses.
Prepared by Allen Rawitch, professor and vice chancellor emeritus, with input from other senior faculty 2022.