History

The Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine was formally established in the fall of 1918.* At that time, the School was reorganized and the association with homeopathy, which had been established in 1873, was terminated. A pharmacology curriculum of lectures, recitations, and laboratory exercises was established and taught by faculty from other institutions. The first appointment of a BUSM professor of pharmacology occurred with the arrival of Dr. Walter L. Mendenhall in 1921. He was succeeded in 1946 by Dr. George L. Maison. By the early 1950s medical students were exposed to a 190-hour course in pharmacology that emphasized the experimental aspect of the science. Research and training of graduate students were in areas of high altitude physiology, cardiac pharmacology, and the pharmacology of veratrum alkaloids. During the 1950s, frequent changes in department leadership occurred. Earl H. Dearborn, Ph.D., M.D., from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, became department chair in 1952, when Dr. Maison became scientific director of Riker Laboratories; Charles J. Kensler, Ph.D., in 1957, when Dr. Dearborn moved to American Cyanamid; and Dr. Edward W. Pelikan in 1960, when Dr. Kensler was appointed vice president at Arthur D. Little, Inc. Research activities of the department faculty during the subsequent thirty-year period under Dr. Pelikan’s leadership included structure-activity studies of neuromuscular blocking agents, the pharmacology of drugs of abuse, pharmacokinetics, gastrointestinal pharmacology, the pharmacology of blood, and the history of medicine.

Dr. David H. Farb assumed the leadership of the department in 1990. Since then, the scope of scientific inquiry has shifted to investigations at the molecular level, with emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches and the use of advanced technologies. In keeping with the primary interest and expertise of Dr. Farb, the major research area of the department now encompasses molecular neuropharmacology. Scientific activity and research training have reached a record level of national recognition, placing the pharmacology training program in the top quartile nationally based upon research productivity.

Expanded research training opportunities for students and innovative recruitment strategies have contributed to more than a doubling in the number of students in the M.A./Ph.D. program. The department has been successful in competing for NIH Training Grants, so that students now receive support through the program in biomolecular pharmacology, and was ranked in the top echelon of PhD training programs for research productivity by the 2010 National Research Council report. Curricular innovations during this period have included the development of a new sequence of courses for pharmacology graduate students, with emphasis on research methodologies. The department has sought to enhance the mission of the medical school in other ways as well, including institution of the annual Russek Student Achievement Day and the development of a program in neuroscience.

*Earl H. Dearborn, Ph.D., M.D. “The Development of Pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine.” BMQ The Boston Medical Quarterly, 6(2):33-37 (June 1955).