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Brown reaches half-century teaching mark

Professor Gene Brown, who has taught general biochemistry at MIT for 50 years, says simply of teaching: "It's what I like to do."
Professor Gene Brown, who has taught general biochemistry at MIT for 50 years, says simply of teaching: "It's what I like to do."
Photo / Donna Coveney

Professor Gene Brown isn't an MIT alumnus, but he's celebrating an unusual Institute milestone nonetheless--teaching the same class for 50 years.

In addition to teaching general biochemistry every year since his arrival at MIT in 1954, Brown has filled many other roles, including dean of science from 1985-91 and, before that, head of the Department of Biology from 1977-85 and associate head from 1967-77. He's taught other courses and mentored 27 Ph.D. students as well.

Brown, 78, discontinued his research program when he became dean of science, but he has taught continuously and still enjoys it. The biology department recognized his long service recently with a reception and a dinner at the Faculty Club in his honor.

"I think biochemistry is a beautiful subject to teach. I really enjoy laying it out to students so they can understand it," Brown said with a hint of an Ozarks accent (he was born in southern Missouri). "I tell you, these students at MIT are very smart--they're basically smarter than I am, but I have it over them because I'm wiser and I know more than they do," he said with a chuckle.

Brown pioneered the practice of open-note exams ("we teach them to think logically," he said), and he's something of an educational pioneer in his own right. He was the first in his family to attend high school and was the only student in his graduating class of 17 to go to college.

When Brown arrived at MIT right out of graduate school, there were one or two women biology majors; today, 60 percent of biology majors are women. Students of both genders have changed in other ways as well. Decades ago, "students were more willing to focus on one particular thing. Now they have more diverse interests, which I think overall is good. They have other activities, so they don't spend as much time on one subject," Brown said.

Another milestone during Brown's tenure was the opening of the Koch Biology Building in 1994. Much of the planning for that facility happened while Brown was dean of science. Faculty members and the architects "listened to one another, and we got a building that functions exceedingly well," he said, lauding features that foster interaction such as the open stairwells and two tea rooms.

Brown has no plans to stop teaching any time soon. "It's what I like to do. As long as the students and the department feel I'm being useful, I'll stick around, I guess," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 19, 2004 (download PDF).

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