HISTORY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF BIOCHEMISTRY AT THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences dates back to 1825 and is the 11th oldest medical school in the country. The Department of Biochemistry at the George Washington University is an academic unit nearly a century old with a reputation of excellence in teaching and research. Over the course of the past 100 years, the vitality and growth of the department has played a pivotal role in the training of medical and basic science undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have pursued distinguished careers in the biochemical and medical sciences. In addition to its educational mission, the department has a long history of distinguished faculty who have shaped medicine and science through breakthrough work and leadership.
The founding chair of the department was Joseph H. Roe, PhD, who chaired from 1922-1932, and again from 1938-1959. A renowned teacher and scholar, Dr. Roe pioneered work in carbohydrate metabolism and developed the widely applied Roe-Kuether procedure to determine ascorbic acid concentrations. Vincent du Vigneud, PhD, chaired the department from 1932-1938. His research focused on insulin, biotin, transmethylation, penicillin, and elucidating and synthesizing oxytocin and vasopressin. In 1955, Dr. du Vigneud received the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry for his work on the isolation, structural identification, and total synthesis of two cyclic peptides, oxytocin and vasopressin. Carleton R. Treadwell, PhD, led the department from 1959-1978. He gained international recognition in the field of lipid metabolism with a primary focus on the mechanism of cholesterol absorption. His work during this era aided in establishing the relationship between the dietary intake of cholesterol, the elevation in serum cholesterol, and the increased risk for development of coronary artery disease.
Within the most recent era, the department was chaired by Allan L. Goldstein, PhD, from 1978 to 2009. An authority on the thymus gland and the workings of the immune system, Dr. Goldstein co-discovered (with Abraham White) thymosins, a family of hormone-like peptides isolated from the thymus gland. Dr. Goldstein’s research has helped to define the role of biological response modifiers in health and disease, and led to the discovery of important new links between the immune system, the neuroendocrine system, and the brain. Dr. Goldstein has also been a pioneer in medical education, having developed a unique series of online distance-education programs titled Frontiers in Medicine. This series of lectures and National Town Forums by leading scientists focused on cutting-edge research. The broadcasts, which were presented live from the George Washington University, began in 1997 and were a first for online continuing medical education.
In 2009, Rakesh Kumar, PhD, a prominent cancer researcher, joined the department as chairman. During his tenure, which ended in 2014, he was responsible for changing the primary research focus of the department to cancer-related investigations. This was achieved by appointing six new faculty with expertise in different aspects of cancer research. Dr. Kumar developed a departmental community outreach program with the School without Walls, one of the top public high schools in Washington, D.C. In addition, Dr. Kumar was instrumental in launching a Nobel Laureate lecture series which presented internationally renowned scientists to the GWU community and, together with Dr. Jack Y. Vanderhoek, started the annual Graduate Student Symposium that featured presentations of thesis results by the departmental MS students.
From 2014-2018, Dr. William Weglicki, MD, served as interim chair of the department and played an instrumental role in promoting academic activities in both research and education. An outstanding physician-scientist, Dr. Weglicki studies mechanisms of cardiovascular injury due to oxidative and nitrosative stress. Recent findings from his group on therapy-induced cardiotoxicity have significant translational relevance to the newly evolving joint cardiology-oncology emphasis on treating cardiovascular disease in long-term cancer survivors.
In 2018, Dr. Rong Li, PhD, an internationally recognized researcher in the field of cancer biology, became the chair of the department. His work has primarily focused on answering important questions concerning breast cancer development and progression, including functions of tumor suppressor genes, estrogen signaling, and tumor microenvironment. Dr. Li also oversees the GW McCormick Genomic and Proteomic Center, a genomic research center, funded by an endowment from Dr. Catherine Birch McCormick, a GW alumnus. The center supports innovative research at the interface of molecular genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics. The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine continues to quickly grow and advance thanks to its faculty, staff and students, who are working together to achieve the mission of the department.