Our History

Written by Michael Rosen

One should not review history without having context, and so this consideration of Columbia’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics is positioned within the field of Pharmacology, itself. Pharmacology is a young science whose roots extend far back into the folk medicine of societies sophisticated or rudimentary. The common root is botany; the impact of plant substances on human behavior and health has been documented from time immemorial. In the western world, names like Linnaeus, for his writings on colchicine and Withering, for his work on foxglove represented the best of 1700’s and early 1800s botany as applied to the treatment of disease.

Around this time of awakening in and understanding of botanical treatments, Columbia University, the tenth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, had its beginnings. Situated near Trinity Church, it was founded as King’s College in 1754. Columbia’s medical school, dating from 1767, is the second oldest in the US and the first to offer the degree of Doctor of Medicine. It suspended operations during the Revolutionary War and reopened its doors as Columbia College in 1784. Its faculty during the first 50 years of its existence numbered 1 to 5 or 6 and among them was always a Professor of Botany. And this is where the progenitor of Columbia’s Department of Pharmacology is found.

David A. Hosack

His name was David A. Hosack, son of a prominent New York family, and he matriculated at Columbia College in 1786 with the intent of studying medicine. In 1792, he spent a year in Edinburgh, and while there recognized the central role of botanicals in treating various illnesses. This led to a year in London, studying with the great botanists of the time. He returned to the US in 1794, joining the Columbia faculty as Professor of Botany. A key happening in Hosack’s career was his saving the life of Alexander Hamilton’s son, Philip, by treating his fevers with Peruvian bark (thanks to Linnaeus, popularized as a therapy for malaria). Using his newfound fame as well as his social connections, Hosack raised money for the purchase of a 20 acre tract in what is now midtown Manhattan. Here he founded the Elgin Botanical Garden. During the next decade, he collected and grew over 3000 species of plants in the garden and used it as a base for teaching medical students. The garden was purchased by New York State in 1811, at the time of Hosack’s retirement from Columbia and was subsequently deeded to the University. It remained University property till the 1920s when it was sold to John D. Rockefeller, and so the center bearing Rockefeller’s name was established.

Hosack was named Professor of Materia Medica (the next iteration in nomenclature from Botany to Pharmacology) at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, and when the latter institution combined with Columbia he held both the chairs in Botany and Materia Medica. During his life he achieved recognition as a leading proponent of the use of botanicals to treat disease. A chair was endowed in his name and the David A. Hosack Professorship exists to this day.

The Field of Pharmacology Develops

Nineteenth century American medicine languished behind that of the rest of the world. There were many reasons for this, but the events leading to and the aftermaths of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War were major contributors. And so, landmark discoveries of the 19th century (e.g., the work of Pasteur, culminating in the germ theory of disease, the discovery of the antibacterial effects of penicillium by Tyndall, the application of Lister’s use of carbolic acid to treat infections in Glasgow to sterile procedure in the operating room by Billroth in Vienna and others).

As for Columbia University, the 1800s saw major issues related to funding and to geography, as it moved to new locations: first in midtown, then to Morningside Heights, and finally the Medical School moving to Washington Heights. And where was the field of Pharmacology, itself? This was established as an independent science in 1847, when Rudolf Buchheim was appointed Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in what was then Russia, and now is Estonia. His student, Oswald Schmiedeberg, is generally recognized as the father of modern Pharmacology, a field in which botany, chemistry, drug synthesis and application in experimental and clinical settings were combined. Pharmacology arrived in the US in 1890 when Schmiedeberg’s student, John Jacob Abel, was appointed Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan.

Charles Christian Lieb

As for Columbia, its first Professor and Chair of Pharmacology was Charles Christian Lieb. He arrived at Columbia in 1909, climbed the academic ladder to professor in 1923 and was named Hosack Professor in 1929, a position he held until 1944. While his own research focused on the heart, he encouraged other directions in the department as well. A Pharmacology library housing a bust of David Hosack was established at the medical school in Lieb’s name after his retirement.

Harry B. van Dyke

Harry B. van Dyke then chaired the Department, from 1944 to 1963. Van Dyke’s research focused on endocrinology, specifically, the pituitary gland, and he expanded the Department’s interests to include neuropharmacology as well. Like his long-ago predecessor, Hosack, van Dyke studied extensively in Europe before becoming Professor at the University of Chicago in 1932. He left to head the Pharmacology Department at the Peking Union Medical College, returning to the Squibb Institute in the US in 1938, and in 1944 he was named the Hosack Professor and Chair of Pharmacology at Columbia. While at Columbia, he moved the department into the first rank of Pharmacology departments in the US, based on the neuroendocrine research being performed. Not one to rest on his laurels, on retiring he established the Department of Pharmacology in Kuala Lumpur.

Brian F. Hoffman

Brian F. Hoffman succeeded Harry van Dyke as Department Chair in 1963, retiring in 1995. Under his leadership the department became one of the top 5 Pharmacology Departments in the US. The focus was on cardiac electrophysiology and pharmacology but strong efforts in the neuroendocrine arena and neuroscience continued and toxicology became an additional focus. At its zenith, investigators in the Department held three NIH program project grants as well as numerous RO-1s and grant support from foundations and from industry. Moreover, the Department graduated a cadre of young scientists who came from all over the world to train with Hoffman and his senior faculty and then dispersed to achieve success in their own names. In the field of postgraduate education the Hoffman department developed joint appointments with other departments at Columbia so that fields of expertise beyond those represented in the Pharmacology laboratories were available to graduate students.

Robert S. Kass

When Brian Hoffman retired in 1995, he was succeeded as Hosack Professor by Robert S. Kass, who continued the cardiovascular direction established by Dr. Hoffman, while expanding to other areas of pharmacological research as well. Moreover, he emphasized a training program for PhDs whose strength lay not only training young scientists in the Pharmacology laboratories but further emphasized outreach, so that the training faculty in Pharmacology far exceeded in number and diversity the primary appointees within the department. The net result was the graduation of new Pharmacologists whose interests extended beyond the core discipline to incorporate diverse areas of investigation in other departments and campuses of Columbia University. In this way, the program reflected the outreach so many years earlier when Buchheim and Schmiedeberg recognized that research in Botany or Materia Medica alone could be leveraged to far greater purpose and effect by a marriage with chemistry.

Dr. Cory Abate-Shen

Dr. Kass was succeeded as Chair by Dr. Cory Abate-Shen in 2019. Under her leadership, the department name has been changed to the “Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics” to embrace the historical foundations of our department in classical pharmacology while at the same time promoting a broad vision of modern pharmacology. Dr. Abate-Shen has undertaken a major recruitment in Cancer Pharmacology, Neuropharmacology, and Cardiovascular Pharmacology, which have a strong foundation of research excellence in our department and the medical school overall. The plan is to build a strong technological base through recruitment of new faculty with expertise in chemical biology, proteomics, drug discovery, pharmacogenomics, epigenetics, and metabolism.