The Department of Biochemistry, Yesterday and Today

The Department of Biochemistry was established in 1930 with the founding of the School of Medicine at Duke University. Its mission was to teach biochemistry to first-year medical students and to supervise the clinical chemistry laboratory of Duke Hospital. Subsequently, the department was made a member of the Graduate School, and authorized to award the PhD degree.

Five Chairs have led the department since its inception. The Founding Chair was William A. Perlzweig (1930-1950), followed by Philip Handler (1950-1969), Robert L. Hill (1969-1993), and Christian R.H. Raetz (1993-2007). Peter Agre and then Kenneth Kreuzer served as Interim Chairs during a transition period of 2007-2010. Richard G. Brennan has served as Chair since early 2011.

During its first twenty years, the department was housed in the Davison Building. There were eight faculty members in the 1940s: Perlzweig, Hans Neurath, Jerome Harris, Frank W. Putnam, George W. Schwert, W.F.H.M. Mommaerts, Mary L.C. Benheim, Philip Handler, and Haywood Taylor. Putnam and Schwert left to chair the Biochemistry Departments at the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky, respectively. Neurath, in turn, left in 1950 to become a highly successful chair of the Biochemistry Department at the University of Washington. Both Putnam and Neurath were elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their contributions to biochemistry.

In 1950, Philip Handler became the Chair of the Department at the age of 32 and over the next 15 years, expanded the faculty to 21 members and graduate students to 60, along with postdoctoral trainees. Handler stepped down as Chair in 1969 to become the 18th President of the National Academy of Sciences, a post he held for two-consecutive six-year terms. After Handler left, the Department continued to develop under Robert Hill and moved to its current home in the Nanaline H. Duke Building.  During this time macromolecular crystallographers joined, along with other young faculty to strengthen molecular biology, particularly in the studies of DNA and RNA. The Department’s presence in protein and enzyme chemistry was enhanced as well.  Raetz succeeded Hill as Chair in 1993 and continued the recruitment of young faculty, including current members Meta Kuehn and Pei Zhou. After Dr. Raetz stepped down in 2007, Kenneth Kreuzer became “interim” Chair and together with the Ion Channel Research Unit carried out the successful recruitment of Seok-Yong Lee, a membrane protein crystallographer, in 2009. In 2011 Richard Brennan was recruited to lead the Department. Since that time, he has recruited eight additional outstanding scientists to the Biochemistry Department including Maria A. Schumacher, Kenichi Yokoyama, Michael Boyce, G. Vann Bennett, Hashim M. Al-Hashimi, Huanghe Yang, Kate D. Meyer, and Alberto Bartesaghi. These new faculty members have added to either the considerable strength of the Department in protein and nucleic acid biochemistry or its growing expertise in signal transduction, membrane-related phenomena, molecular neurobiology, and computational and structural biology. In addition, several of these newer faculty members have brought innovative and exciting programs in the broader areas of cellular biochemistry, molecular microbiology, molecular science, and cryo-EM, thereby expanding significantly the scientific reach, depth and interests of the Department of Biochemistry.

The Department of Biochemistry is engaged in cutting-edge research that elucidates the molecular and structural nature of biological processes by making fundamental discoveries that ultimately will transform our understanding of essential life processes and enhance human health. The department also contributes to an unusually broad educational mission, training and teaching undergraduate, graduate and medical students. Currently, the Department is comprised of 21 primary and 12 secondary faculty members, 5 active emeritus members, 3 adjunct professors, roughly 60 graduate students, and 20 postdoctoral fellows and research associates. The Department occupies approximately 35,000 sq. ft. of the Nanaline Duke Building and 5,500 sq. ft. of the adjacent Sands Building, all of which have been recently renovated.

The Department of Biochemistry and six of the other basic science departments within the Duke University School of Medicine are located in adjacent buildings along both sides of Research Drive, promoting frequent interdepartmental interactions and productive collaborations. The department also benefits greatly from its physical proximity to the main Duke University campus and the recently opened Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education.  The main quad, the beautiful Duke Chapel and Duke Gardens, the School of Engineering, the Departments of Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Computer Science, and even the legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium, are all within a few minutes’ walk from the Nanaline Duke.

The department's world-class research programs have been recognized by highly cited publications and findings, which are now included in textbooks, major journal editorships, provision of world-wide research resources, and numerous awards. Topping these awards are the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry given to Robert J. Lefkowitz in 2012 and Paul L. Modrich in 2015 while other research has been recognized by memberships in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the election of seven members to the National Academy of Sciences as well as the election of faculty members to other honor societies including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Currently nine primary faculty members hold endowed professorships. The newest members of the Department have also garnered multiple scholarships and young investigator awards including those from the Rita Allen, Kimmel and Klingenstein-Simons Foundations as well as NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards, presaging continued research excellence into the distant future.