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Buchanan looks back on history of biochemistry

John M. Buchanan, professor emeritus of biology, discussed the rise of biochemistry as a dynamic field at MIT in the Department of Biology's annual Christmas lecture on Dec. 10.

Buchanan, who joined MIT in 1953 as head of the biochemistry section, credited department heads that served since 1941 as well as former MIT President Karl Taylor Compton with developing scientific research and teaching at the Institute and creating an impetus for an ambitious new department.

In addition to biochemistry, the biology department now emcompasses the research disciplines of biophysics, microbiology, virology, developmental biology, cell biology, genetics, immunology and neurobiology. Keeping related disciplines under one roof would allow faculty and students to move about freely within the field, making connections for research that may not otherwise be possible, predicted former MIT President James Killian.

The first head of the newly created Department of Molecular Biology, as it was called, was Francis Schmitt, who served from 1941-55. From Schmitt's time to the present (Professor Robert T. Sauer became department head in 1999), Buchanan said he and others have been committed to finding the best and brightest faculty to broaden the department, and to connect young faculty with more senior mentors.

Buchanan provided old slides and fond descriptions of every biochemistry faculty member, all of whom he knew personally or recruited himself. He showed pictures of a dark-haired Phillip Sharp (now an Institute Professor and Nobel laureate), a very serious-looking Salvador Luria (former department head and another Nobelist) and Sauer, smiling and leaning against rows of lab supplies in his first office, a storeroom.

Buchanan described how Alexander Rich, now the William Thompson Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics, was "hired on the spot" after he delivered a guest lecture. He showed a 1971 picture of a long-haired Professor Jonathan King ("this was during the hippie period, I think," Buchanan said) and pointed out which faculty members had less or grayer hair than they did decades ago.

Recruited himself by the late MIT President James Killian Jr., Buchanan has been a member of National Academy of Science for more than 40 years.

Modeled after Great Britain's Royal Society Christmas Lecture series, the department's annual lecture has been given in previous years by Har Gobind Khorana, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry emeritus; Rich; Professor Robert Weinberg; Professor Emeritus Gene M. Brown; Sharp; and Vernon Ingram, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.

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