Biochemistry at Weill Cornell Medicine has a long history of significant advances and research achievements. The department started as part of the Department of Physiological Chemistry & Chemical Pathology. The Department of Chemistry was founded in 1913 under the Chairmanship of Stanley R. Benedict, and the name was changed to the Department of Biochemistry in 1932. Vincent du Vigneaud, Alton Meister, and Frederick R. Maxfield have served as Department Chairs. During the tenure of the first three Chairs, research within the Department was closely associated with the interests of the Chairs.
Stanley Benedict was recruited in 1910 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Physiological Chemistry and Chemical Pathology. His method remained the basis for sugar determinations in biological fluids for almost 50 years, and it was the most common test for diabetes. In addition to the method for sugar determination, methods were developed for analysis of metabolites such as urea, creatine/creatinine, uric acid, and ammonia.
Former Chair Vincent du Vigneaud succeeded Benedict as Chair in 1938. He pioneered biochemistry work, with such studies as using isotopic tracers to study the metabolism of S-containing compounds. Du Vigneaud trained a generation of young scientists, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in Biochemistry. Du Vigneaud’s research was recognized with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1955.
The research achievements during the du Vigneaud era included: Elucidating the metabolic relationship between methionine and homocysteine, thus paving the way to the study of biological methyl transfer.
Alton Meister was appointed the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry in 1967. Meister’s research was aimed at elucidating the enzymatic pathways by which amino acids are synthesized, interconverted and catabolized. Other Department faculty studied protein-protein interactions and the structure of proteins using biophysical methods such as ultracentrifugation and electron microscopy.
In addition to his prolific research productivity, Meister served for many years as Editor of Advances in Enzymology, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Annual Review of Biochemistry.
Frederick Maxfield was appointed Chair in 1995, after an interval of three years, during which Esther Breslow served as Acting Chair. Before his recruitment, Maxfield was Professor of Pathology and Physiology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He had received his Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry from Cornell University, Ithaca. The focus of research has shifted towards cellular biophysics and structural biology with several independent groups engaged in studies in molecular structure determination, molecular mechanisms of membrane trafficking, protein folding, and signal transduction.
Medical student teaching remains an important role of department faculty. In a major revision of the Basic Science curriculum in the Medical College, the department-based courses were replaced with integrated courses that use various modalities to teach the basic sciences in the first 2 years of the medical program. The Biochemistry faculty members are principally involved in the first Basic Science course, Essential Principles of Medicine.