The History of Biochemistry at Vassar College
By David Jemiolo, Associate Professor of Biology
Updated December 2022
The discipline of biochemistry evolved from chemical studies on biological tissue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Programs in biochemistry first appeared in universities and medical schools and, prior to the 1980s, it was rare to find biochemistry programs in undergraduate institutions. Anne Gounaris from chemistry and Anita Zorzoli from biology started the Biochemistry Program at Vassar in 1968/69, and the program was among the first to be offered by an undergraduate institution. At the time, chemistry was located in the old Sanders Chemistry Building and biology was in New England Building. In 1973, biology relocated to Olmsted Hall of the Biological Sciences. In 1984, chemistry moved to the Seeley G. Mudd Chemistry Building, before moving to its current home in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences in 2016. While interdepartmental in organization, the Biochemistry Program was multidisciplinary, requiring course work in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. It was the first multidisciplinary program at Vassar College since Euthenics. The curriculum was reorganized in the early 1990s into its present form, but biochemistry always emphasized research as an important component of the program. Prior to 1968, biochemistry at Vassar was limited to specific courses in chemistry and in the Department of Physiology. Ruth Ellis taught biochemistry in the Chemistry Department starting in the early 1940s. The Physiology Department, which in 1963 combined with Plant Science and Zoology to become the Department of Biology, offered courses in nutrition and metabolism that evolved into a course in cellular biochemistry in the late 1950s.
History of Biochemistry
Biochemistry came on the science scene in the early 1900s with the appearance of the first biochemical journals, the formation of a section of biological chemistry by the American Chemical Society, and the creation of biochemistry departments in research universities and medical schools. But studies at the interface of biology and chemistry had already begun in the middle of the 19th century. In 1877, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, a German chemist and physiologist, edited the first biochemical journal Zeitschrift für Physiologische Chemie. In the foreword to the inaugural issue, he first used the term biochemistry. His research and this journal focused the early work of biochemists on chemical analysis of biological tissues and fluids.
In the early 1900s biochemists became interested in the dynamic nature of biological molecules. It was soon discovered that cellular compounds were converted to different forms by enzymes, proteins acting as biological catalysts. Eduard Buchner, who in 1897 reported that fermentation could be done by cell-free extracts of yeast, set the stage for this work. Fermentation is the conversion of glucose to ethanol and carbon dioxide. It was known that microorganisms, particularly yeast used in beer brewing and winemaking, carry out fermentation and it was thought that fermentation was a life process, something only living biological organisms were capable of. Buchner’s work established that chemical changes in living cells occurred by action of enzymes and that these processes could be dissected and understood by isolating and characterizing enzymes. This spawned a new phase in biochemical research: the isolation and physico-chemical characterization of enzymes. This research continues today but is aided by the techniques of molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology, and it has expanded to include other macromolecules found in cells.
The Origin of Biochemistry at Vassar College
At the January 1968 meeting of the faculty, the Biochemistry Program was approved. This new program, the first multidisciplinary program at Vassar since Euthenics, didn’t seem to draw much attention in the Miscellany News that year probably because of other more pressing issues like the Vietnam War, a proposed marriage with Yale, coeducation, drug use, parietals, a boycott of California grapes, and registration of male students. The course requirements were numerous and spread out over several disciplines: biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
This interdepartmental program was one of the first biochemistry programs offered by an undergraduate institution. Prior to 1985 biochemistry was largely reserved for post-baccalaureate study. In an article titled A Brief History of Biochemical Education, Rodney Boyer wrote that a few colleges and universities began offering bachelor’s degrees in the late 1960s. Boyer reported that Beloit College was rumored to be one of the first undergraduate programs; however, Beloit’s biochemistry program was started in 1977, nine years after Vassar’s.
While biochemistry was new to Vassar as a major, it was not new as a course in the curriculum. Ruth Humphrey Ellis of the Department of Chemistry taught a course titled Biochemistry from the early 1940s into the early 1960s. Ellis came to Vassar in 1930 with a PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Her research was on essential amino acids, which she began in William C. Rose’s laboratory at Illinois. Rose was an early biochemist who established the importance of amino acids in human nutrition and discovered the essential amino acids. His experimental subjects were chemistry graduate students who were fed diets lacking one of the essential amino acids. In the Chemistry Department at Vassar, Sanders Chemistry, Ellis raised rats on a variety of diets varying in essential amino acids.
In the early 1920s, Mary Landon Sague had developed a course titled The Chemistry of Food and Nutrition, which Ellis eventually taught and renamed Biochemistry. Sague was a Vassar institution, teaching in the Chemistry Department for 44 years. She graduated from Vassar College in 1907, taught high school for one year and then returned to Vassar as an assistant to the Chemistry Department. While working at Vassar, she received a PhD from Columbia in 1920. Among other things she was chair of chemistry for 28 years, helped the department transition from the Vassar Brothers Laboratory into Sanders Chemistry in 1909 and began courses in nutrition and food that lead to a course in biochemistry.
The Biology Department’s contribution to biochemistry courses began well before the department even existed. The Biology Department was formed from a fusion of Plant Science (or Botany), Zoology, and Physiology in 1962, and it was the physiologists who had spawned courses prior to the merger that eventually morphed into a biochemistry course. In the 1920s and 1930s the Physiology Department taught courses on nutrition and by the late 1930s they were teaching a course titled Digestion, Metabolism and Secretion. In 1946 this course was renamed Chemical Physiology. It covered the chemical composition of tissues and body fluids in relation to metabolic processes.
In 1951 Chemical Physiology experienced a significant change. The catalogue description became “The chemical basis of life: how cells derive their energy and produce protoplasm from interactions of chemical constituents.” The chemical basis of life is biochemistry, pure and simple.
Chemical Physiology became Cellular Physiology, and in 1957 Anita Zorzoli taught it. In 1960 Zorzoli introduced a new course, Cellular Metabolism, which was renamed Biochemistry of the Cell and by 1970 grew to become Biochemistry of the Cell I and II.
Ruling the Roost
From communications with Vassar College alumni and departmental records, it seems clear that from its outset the biochemistry major was Gounaris’ program. Gounaris came to Vassar in 1966 with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and MA and PhD from Radcliffe College in chemistry. In her postgraduate years prior to Vassar she did research at Brookhaven National Laboratories with Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., an eminent biochemist and pioneer in enzyme kinetics. In her early days at Vassar, she studied pyruvate decarboxylase III, an enzyme whose activity in yeast leads to fermentation and ethanol production.
Gounaris’ biochemistry research space was at that time housed in the old Sanders Chemistry Building in a lab that looked out over Sunset Lake. Biochemistry majors likely thought of the lake more as Sunrise Lake given its location relative to the laboratory and the long hours spent conducting experiments. (Gounaris always thought research was an important component to biochemistry, so she had students doing all sorts of independent projects. In the old Sanders Chemistry Building, this would frequently cause problems because of the faulty exhaust system. Apparently, it was not uncommon to have to evacuate faculty offices adjacent to the lab when deadly, volatile compounds like cyanide were being used!)
Gounaris was a “grind and find” biochemist. Prior to the advent of molecular biology techniques, biochemists had to use biological tissue to purify enzymes for study, and the tissue had to be fresh and there had to be lots of it. Gounaris didn’t have a special tissue for students to study, but she did have a favorite haunt: Karl Ehmer’s slaughterhouse, which provided a bountiful source of fresh tissue and a new perspective on carnivory to many Vassar students.
Dr. Anita Zorzoli
The Biology Department’s main contributor to biochemistry in the early days was Anita Zorzoli, who came to Vassar in 1955. Zorzoli’s path to biochemistry was through physiology. She was a graduate of Hunter College with an MA from Columbia University and PhD from New York University. Her research interests were the biological effects of aging, in particular the process of gluconeogenesis—production of glucose from other metabolites—and how aging affected this process. While at Vassar she maintained an active research program receiving over 20 years of grant support from funding agencies, principally NIH, and she became an expert in the biology of aging.
Biochemistry was first listed as a major in the 1968/69 catalogue. The combined teaching faculties of the Biology and Chemistry departments were listed as faculty, and Gounaris and Zorzoli were the advisors. (In the catalogue the formal titles for both advisors were “Miss.”) Course requirements were numerous and included general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, general biology, physiology, genetics, a year of physics and mathematics, and two semesters of coursework in biochemistry.
Students had two ways of satisfying course work in biochemistry: Biochemistry of the Cell taught by Zorzoli along with Cellular Physiology; alternatively, students could take a yearlong course Molecular Biochemistry offered by Gounaris. Biochemistry courses continued to be offered by both departments through most of the ’70s. Zorzoli’s Biochemistry of the Cell morphed into two courses whereas Gounaris’ Molecular Biochemistry became a yearlong course with lab titled Biochemistry. The emphasis and approaches taken by Zorzoli and Gounaris were undoubtedly different. Zorzoli’s research focused on cellular processes whereas Gounaris was an enzymologist. Multiple biochemistry courses were offered until 1978/79 when Zorzoli was on a full year’s leave.
The previous year’s catalog announced a significant change in biochemistry with program requirements in biology changed to a full year of introductory biology, two units at the 200-level, and two units at the 300-level from a long list of courses with Zorzoli’s biochemistry courses conspicuously missing. Senior year requirements changed to Gounaris’ biochemistry courses with laboratories. While Zorzoli was listed as a faculty member, she was on medical leave for a number of years, and her biochemistry courses eventually disappeared from the curriculum to be replaced by a one-semester biology course with lab titled either Cellular Biochemistry or Biochemistry. Biochemistry majors, however, could not count this course in the major because its subjects overlapped those in Gounaris’ biochemistry
In 2019/20 the Biochemistry Program was restructured into its current form, and to align with Vassar’s nascent Intensives curriculum. A one-semester lecture-lab course in biochemistry remains as the gateway course to the major. Biochemistry majors are also required to take foundational courses in introductory chemistry, organic chemistry, and introductory biology. At the upper levels of the curriculum, additional requirements include courses in genetics, cellular biology, and biophysical chemistry. Capstone courses in the major are the senior seminar in biochemistry and a biochemistry intensive that is most often a laboratory research project with a faculty mentor. In its current form, the biochemistry major affords students with the flexibility to tailor the curriculum to their interests and to prepare for a wide variety of careers in areas such as research, medicine, or science policy.
The Department of Biology came into existence in 1962 as an amalgam of the departments of Plant Science, Zoology, and Physiology. Laboratories for biology were located in New England Building until 1973 when Olmsted Hall of the Biological Sciences was opened.
Chemistry was housed in Sanders Chemistry, which is now Sanders Classroom, but moved to the Seeley G. Mudd Chemistry Building in 1984. Gounaris was chair of chemistry during the planning stages of Mudd, and she made sure it had adequate space for biochemistry research projects. By the early 2000s, the chemistry department had started to outgrow Mudd, so in 2016 it moved into the new Bridge for Laboratory Sciences. This new facility houses faculty research labs and offices, teaching laboratories and classrooms, as well as a wide range of state-of-the-art biochemistry instrumentation. The Bridge makes a physical connection to Olmsted, so after almost 50 years in existence, the biochemistry program was finally united under one roof.
Biochemistry has been Vassar’s most demanding major in terms of courses, requiring as many at 18 units (out of 34) to complete the major. It is typically the case that majors self-identify, knowing on day one of their first year that they are going to major in biochemistry. It is the only major that covers the science requirements for pre-medicine and many of its majors go on to medical school. Others pursue careers in research and teaching, industry, veterinary medicine and other areas. For example, the plastic surgeon featured on The Housewives of New York is a Vassar College biochemist. One of our graduates is coauthor of a paper in Nature announcing the initial mapping of the human genome. The recently retired senior lecturer in chemistry was a VC biochemist. Another of our graduates has been working as a ski and mountaineering guide in Alaska, Chile, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
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Boyer, R. F., (2003) Project Kaleidoscope A Brief History of Biochemical Education
Daniels, E. A., (1996) Main to Mudd, and More An Informal History of Vassar College Buildings, Vassar College
Fruton, J.S. (1976) “The Emergence of Biochemistry,” Science 192: 327–334
Holmes, F.L. (1982) “The History of Biochemistry: A Review of the Literature of the Field,” in Biochemistry Collections, a Cross-disciplinary Survey of the Literature, The Haworth Press
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