Our History

Section 1


University of Illinois Biophysics
The First Half-Century
by Emeritus Professor Howard Ducoff (1923-2012)

Shortly after the end of World War II, the campus administration decided to beef up the life sciences here by establishing an outstanding new research group. I don't know whether they first picked the discipline and then sought the leading individuals or first found out which outstanding scientists might be available. In any case, this was the beginning of the Photosynthesis Laboratory, a unit of the Botany Department, featuring Robert Emerson, recruited from Cal Tech, and Eugene Rabinowitch, who had worked in the Manhattan Project (the Atom Bomb project) at the University of Chicago Metallurgy Laboratory, the forerunner of Argonne National Lab. For many years, Emerson had a famous scientific dispute with Nobel laureate Otto Warburg, who had once been his mentor, in regard to the quantum efficiency of photosynthesis. He brought Warburg to Urbana to perform experiments and to debate. The outcome at that time was inconclusive, but it gave our Photosynthesis Lab a great deal of attention in the scientific community. (Emerson was eventually proven to be correct-His discovery in 1957 led to the two light reactions-two pigment systems concept of oxygenic photosynthesis.) Rabinowitch also attracted attention, both as editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and as author of a 3-volume treatise on Photosynthesis and Related Processes.

Emerson and Rabinowitch recognized a serious difficulty for their graduate students. Most of them were graduates of physical science curricula, and they found it very difficult to cope with the Botany Department's classical course requirements. (The most notorious, I was told, was a graduate course on The Flowering Plants of Illinois; however, I can find no listing of such a course in the graduate catalogs of that era.) Accordingly, with support from C. Ladd Prosser, Henry Quastler, and other physical science-oriented biologists and physical scientists interested in biological phenomena, they developed a multi-disciplinary graduate program called Physicochemical Biology (PCB). Professor Bartlett of the Physics Department had offered a 2-semester biophysics course since 1944; in 1951, this course was reorganized, with a separate laboratory course, Physics 354, taught by Professors Rawcliffe, and with Rabinowitch participating in the didactic biophysics courses, Physics 351 and 352, in 1953-54. The PCB program offered three courses: Radiobiology (Quastler), Photobiology (Emerson & Rabinowitch), and Electrobiology (Prosser); Physics 354 was cross-listed as the PCB laboratory.

Quastler deserves special mention here. He had been a clinical radiologist in Vienna prior to the Nazis taking over Austria. Being Jewish, he and his wife had both spent time in concentration camps. After the war, in order to emigrate to the U. S., he had to have a sponsor here. Caesar Gianturco, an Italian who was chief of radiology at Carle Clinic, had known him through European radiology circles, and he sponsored Quastler to come to Urbana as a Carle radiologist. Quastler was an extraordinarily versatile individual, and soon had a part time appointment in the Control Systems Lab, which had been established in the Physics Department in 1951, as well as a part time appointment in Physiology (which had split off from the Zoology Department in 1949); Quastler was one of the first to apply Information Theory to biology. He also pioneered the use of isotopes, particularly tritiated thymidine, to study cell kinetics. He had relatively few students, however, and only one who stayed in radiation research (William James Osborne, for 23 years the Director of the Radiation Biology Lab at the University of Iowa). Quastler left the University of Illinois in June 1956, spent the summer in the Biology Division of Argonne (which is where I met him) before starting his full-time research post at Brookhaven National Lab. I came to Urbana in the fall of 1957, nominally as Quastler's successor, but full-time, in the Physiology Department, and also a member of the PCB faculty. At that time PCB included, besides Rabinowitch, Emerson, and Prosser, William Fry (head of the Bioacoustics group in Electrical Engineering), Heinz von Foerster (Director of the Biological Computing Lab in Electrical Engineering), Sol Spiegelman of Microbiology, and William Johnson (a cardiac muscle biophysicist who had been a Ph.D. student in the University Chicago Physiology Department at the same time that I was). In the late 1950s, there were biophysics programs and/or departments being established in many of the country's leading universities, and our PCB faculty spent quite a bit of time debating whether we should change our name. Most felt that physicochemical biology better described what we were doing, but biophysics was the popular buzzword for the academic departments likely to hire our graduates. NIH training grants were just coming on the scene, and Bill Johnson prepared an application for PCB; it proved successful, and was classified by NIH in their biophysics category. It was initially headquartered in the School of Life Sciences, but the students, small in number, felt lost without a home department. Therefore, with Prosser leading the way, the program was transferred to what had been the Physiology Department, but now became the Department of Physiology and Biophysics! One of the first students to receive a Ph. D. in Biophysics (1960) was our own Professor Govindjee, who had entered the PCB program in 1956!

The program grew and prospered; by the 1980s, graduate student enrollment in Biophysics was more than 50, the third largest in the School of Life Sciences. Nevertheless, some faculty members in departments outside SOLS felt uncomfortable reporting to the P & B head, and some departments outside the life sciences recruited biophysics-oriented faculty without consulting members of the Biophysics program. As far back as the mid-1970s, a committee headed by Professor Weber had suggested establishment of a department-independent Center. By 1989, a formal proposal for a Center, housed in SOLS, was prepared; by 1992, and after several name-changes, the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology was approved. There was still some debate, however, about whether the Department of Physiology and Biophysics could retain Biophysics in its title, or again become simply Physiology. Compromise was finally achieved, when the department became Molecular and Integrative Physiology!

Section 2