About the Department


VCU Department of Physiology: 1845-2008

The Medical College of Virginia (MCV) was founded December 1, 1837, when the trustees of Hampden-Sydney College, encouraged to do so by Richmond physicians, created a Medical Department in that city. Although loosely affiliated with a college, MCV was typical of many proprietary American medical schools in the 19th and early 20th century. It was governed by its faculty, all medical practitioners. Student fees provided all of the school’s income. The Egyptian Building was built to house MCV in 1845.

In 1848, Dr. Carter F. Johnson became Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, and held this position until his death in 1854. A faculty argument in 1854 over the appointment of his successor resulted in MCV becoming independent of Hampden-Sydney College. Beginning in 1860, it received an annual state grant. In 1893, another dispute led to the creation of University College of Medicine only two blocks from MCV. In 1909, Abraham Flexner visited Richmond as part of his classical study of American and Canadian medical schools. Largely due to Flexner’s report, the two medical schools merged as Medical College of Virginia in 1913. It soon became a state institution for training medical, dental, pharmacy and nursing students.

Until 1915, all medical faculty were also practicing physicians. Physiology teaching was purely didactic until 1895, when experimental lecture demonstrations by a specially appointed Demonstrator in Physiology were introduced. Student laboratory exercises in Physiology were added after 1898, with the demonstrators also acting as examiners. In 1915 Dr. Charles C. Haskell, who had arrived at MCV in 1913 as Instructor in Physiology and Pharmacology, was appointed Professor of Pharmacology and Associate Professor of Physiology and head of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, which existed as a single department from 1915 to 1955. The first salaried full-time teachers of basic sciences were hired in the early 1920’s. In 1934, Dr. William R. Bond, a graduate of MCV's pharmacy and medical schools, became head of the physiology section of the department. The first M.S. degree was awarded in 1936.

In 1955, the Physiology staff consisted of Dr. Robert Ramsey, Professor and Chairman, Professors Ernst Fischer and Ernst Huf (who coined the term, “active transport”), Associate Professor Leslie E. Edwards, Assistant Professor Sidney Solomon, one part-time Instructor, and two part-time Lecturers. In collaboration with his wife, Dr. Sybil Street, Dr. Ramsey did pioneering work on skinned muscle fibers and published the length-tension diagram in single muscle cells. This work ultimately led to the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction.

The first Ph.D. was awarded in 1961 (by the Department of Physiology, to Alfred J. Szumski, who later joined the faculty). In 1963, the Physiology Department moved into the newly constructed Sanger Hall. Shortly thereafter, the MCV medical curriculum changed from departmental to integrated. The first year of study covered more or less normal structure and function, the second year covered the abnormal. Coordinators carried curricular responsibilities previously assumed by chairmen of basic science departments. As in similar programs at other medical schools, MCV drastically reduced the student hours devoted to laboratory exercises. In fall 1966, Dr. Fischer retired; Dr. Edwards served as acting chairman until 1968, when Dr. Ian E. Bush assumed the chair.

In 1968 the legislature created Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) by merging MCV with the former Richmond Professional Institute, a state institution founded in 1937. MCV, the Health Sciences Division of VCU, included Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Nursing, Basic Health Sciences, and Allied Health Professions. The Division of Psychiatric Research was incorporated into the Department of Physiology, bringing much needed expertise in neurophysiology. Dr. Bush resigned in 1970 and Dr. Edwards resumed the role of acting chairman until 1971, when Dr. F. Norman Briggs was appointed chair. At the time of his arrival there were 14 full time faculty members. By 1977 it had grown to 27, including Professor Huf, who although retired, maintained an active laboratory with what eventually became the longest continuously funded NIH grant in the country. Three of the 27 faculty were transferred from the former Department of Biophysics, and the department was renamed the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

Three research themes were developed in the department under Dr. Ramsey: muscle, epithelial transport, and gastrointestinal physiology. The muscle theme was expanded when Dr. Briggs assumed the chair. Dr. Briggs also expanded the effort in epithelial transport and supported the development of neurosciences and endocrinology in the department. He resigned from the chair in 1985 but continued for another 15 years as the first Distinguished Professor of Physiology (the department name was shortened back to Physiology late in Dr. Briggs’ tenure as chair). He remained active and maintained grant support until his retirement in 2000.

Dr. Briggs resignation of the departmental chair led to several years of instability, with a series of acting chairmen and two “permanent” chairmen (Dr. John DeSimone and Dr. Alexandre Fabiato) who each resigned from the position after short times. Dr. Margaret Biber was appointed department chair in 1991, and provided effective leadership for 16 years. In 2006, Dr. Biber announced that she intended to step down, and a search for a new chair ended successfully with the appointment of Dr. Diomedes Logothetis to the position in 2008. The name of the department was restored to Physiology and Biophysics.

Note: This document is based largely on a department history written by Dr. John Mahaffie in 1977, which was expanded by Dr. Alexandre Fabiato and subsequently reviewed and edited by Dr. Steven Price and faculty of the department.

Important Dates

1837 – Medical College of Virginia is established in Richmond Virginia
1848 – Dr. Carter F. Johnson is named Professor of Anatomy and Physiology
1898 – First physiology student laboratories
1854 – Dr. Charles Edward Brown-Sequard joins faculty
1915 – Establishment of Department of Physiology and Pharmacology
1915 – Dr. Haskell appointed Chair
1924 – Dr. William R. Bond appointed Chair
1935 – Dr. Ernst Fischer appointed Chair
1947 – Dr. Robert W. Ramsey appointed Chair
1955 – Physiology becomes independent department
1963 – Dr. Ernst Fischer re-appointed Chair
1968 - Dr. Ian E. Bush appointed Chair
1971 – Dr. F. Norman Briggs appointed Chair
1989 – Dr. John A. DeSimone appointed Chair
1992 – Dr. Margaret Biber appointed Chair
2008 – Dr. Diomedes Logothetis appointed Chair of Physiology and Biophysics

temperture control and holder for stimulating electrodes

This photograph shows the setup (temperature control and holder for stimulating electrodes to the left; micrometer to adjust the muscle fiber length to the right) used by Ramsey and Street (J. Cell. Comp. Physiol. 1940 15:11-33) for their seminal description of the length-tension diagram of a single skeletal muscle fiber from the frog.

VCU Department of Physiology and Biophysics Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Medical Center
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