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The ACS Division of Biological Chemistry was founded in 1913 by chemists who recognized the dominant role played by chemistry in biological systems. The research interests of the Division’s members is a finely woven cloth of chemistry and biology, and many of our members are associated with both the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Biochemists and Molecular Biologists.

The Early Years

The history of the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry can be divided into three periods: from its founding in 1913 to World War II; the “Brand” years, including those years when Dr. Brand’s immediate associates followed him and continued his leadership until the middle 1950s; and the 45 years up to 2001. Of special note is the interplay of the division with the American Society of Biological Chemists, founded seven years earlier, in 1906. These two major societies representing biochemists in the United States have worked hand in hand to further the interests of biochemistry not only in this country but throughout the rest of the world.

The events leading up to the formation of the Division of Biological Chemistry (DOB), in 1913, are vague. The first chairman, Dr. Carl L. Alsberg, a Columbia University M.D., had two years’ training in biochemistry at the Universities of Strasbourg and Berlin. Alsberg also was a founding member of the American Society of Biological Chemists (ASBC). After serving four years as DOB chairman, he became president of the ASBC in 1917. This set a precedent that has been followed throughout the history of the division. Biochemists of prominence, such as R. J. Anderson, H. B. Lewis, C. G. King, J. T. Edsall, E. E. Snell, H. Lardy, P. Boyer, John Buchanan, F. Putnam, Alton Meister, and D. E. Koshland, were chairmen of the division and also presidents or secretaries of the sister society. Many were active in other capacities as well, offering biochemistry a most effective forum for communications. DOB and ASBC have had a consistent one-third overlap in membership, which overlap in 1975 totaled about 1000.

The Brand Years

Before World War II, it is unlikely that the division ever had more than 200 members, and interest in biochemistry in the American Chemical Society was restricted to the more chemical and physical rather than the biological aspects of the field. But in 1941, a dominant figure and personality appeared; Dr. Erwin Brand took over the leadership, and interest in the division suddenly increased. Dr. John T. Edsall, a close friend and associate, outlined Dr. Brand’s accomplishments and his contributions to the division in an address at the Fiftieth Anniversary Banquet of the division in 1963.

The division membership had grown from 263 in 1941 to 1785 by 1955. The secretary’s job of recordkeeper, program chairman, and treasurer had become too much for one person; with Dr. Carl Baker’s term, a treasurer was included, the first being Mr. Robert Harte. It was the custom of the division to select secretaries and treasurers who had available without cost the clerical, mailing, and stenographic services necessary for the job. The team of Baker and Harte was succeeded by Julius Schultz, a professor of biochemistry at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, and Dr. Art Heming, department chairman at Smith, Kline & French Co. By 1975, Dr. Schultz had been a member of the division’s executive committee and, alternately, secretary or program chairman for 20 years.

A peppery, aggressive and fascinating personality, Erwin Brand was the driving force that changed the Division from primarily a forum for presenting scientific papers to an influential force in the development of organized biochemistry internationally as well as nationally. The first International Congress of Biochemistry was held at Cambridge, England in August, 1949. On that occasion, a group of twelve biochemists from eight countries established an International Committee for Biochemistry under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Harington. The British Biochemical Society had polled biochemists around the world and concluded that there was strong feeling for the establishment of an International Union of Biochemistry.

International biochemistry was already represented in a section of biochemistry within the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and influential biochemists in the U. S. were supporting the continued representation within IUPAC and opposed the establishment of an independent I.U.B. Representation on the Harington Committee from the U. S. included appointees from both the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry and the American Society of Biological Chemists. The same held true for representation in the Section on Biochemistry of IUPAC. Controversy concerning the merits of one international union representing biochemistry versus two continued, but finally through the efforts of the Harington Committee ICSU [International Council of Scientific Unions] approved the establishment of the independent IUB, and country membership and mechanisms of adherence to the new Union were initiated in 1953. Robert Harte writes of those times that “in the forefront at the time of organizing the IUB were people like Severo Ochoa, Elmer Stoll, John Edsall, Erwin Brand, Jesse Gornstein, Dick Barnes, and Carl Baker, and I recall many Saturdays and Sundays spent at the Academy building where pros and cons were argued.”

In the U. S., adherence to IUB was established through the National Academy of Sciences and the National Committee was set up so that representation of both the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry and the American Society of Biological Chemists would be maintained. Thus internationally as well as in the U. S., biochemistry found two avenues through which it functions; one through affiliation with Chemistry (IUPAC and ACS) and the other independently (IUB and ASBC). The dual representation internationally apparently has not been disorienting as had been predicted by a number of U. S. biochemists. Certainly, in this country, the dual representation of biochemists has been beneficial in several respects.

Following Brand’s death, in 1953, the division established the Erwin Brand Travel Award, which by 1975 was still being supported by contributions of $1.00 from the annual dues. This fund was used to defray the expenses of travel by young investigators to international biochemical congresses. A travel committee of three, appointed by the chairman, met with a similar committee of the ASBC, which also had a travel fund. As much as $10,000 was distributed by the division in 1973, when more than 30 young biochemists received travel support from the Brand Fund.

The Founding of Biochemistry

An event of profound importance to the Division of Biological Chemistry was the founding of the journal Biochemistry. As a member of the ACS Council Committee on Publications, R. Barnes brought to the division’s executive committee the information that the ACS was interested in a journal of biochemistry. This lay dormant, especially since the other executive committee members close to the ASBC were not sure of the reaction of that society to competition with the highly popular Journal of Biological Chemistry, the only society publication in the field in the U. S. The other journal in biochemistry was the Archives of Biochemistry, published by Academic Press. Action came when E. Stadtman, a member of the executive committee, was appointed chairman of the committee to poll the membership on the feasibility of and the need for a new journal. A complicated questionnaire designed by the committee was returned by more than 1000 members: an overwhelming majority favored another journal. With this information, the ACS asked the division’s chairman, P. Boyer, followed by D. E. Green, to participate in selecting an editor. Boyer and J. Buchanan succeeded in finally selecting H. Neurath as Editor. Although the division has no responsibility for the publication, Neurath presented a report on Biochemistry at each meeting of the executive committee. He became chairman of the division in 1961–62.

A Revolution in Biology and Evolution of the DBC

The great surge of federal support for research brought the rumblings of the revolution in biology in the 1950s; in the l960s this became a full-fledged revolt that made biochemistry one of the glamour sciences in the popular press. It was strongly reflected in the output of papers and presentations at meetings, and the division’s membership reached 3000 before the end of the 1960s. Many recipients of the ACS awards in biochemistry and enzyme chemistry, the Eli Lilly and Paul-Lewis awards, presented their original work at symposia organized by the division. During Dr. Max Lauffer’s chairmanship in 1950 a policy was established that the Eli Lilly and Paul- Lewis awardees present addresses on their fields of activity. This policy remained unchanged in 1975. Many of the awardees and others who participated in the symposia, such as S. Ochoa, K. Bloch, B. Stein, S. Moore, F. Lipmann, V. duVigneaud, C. Anfinsen, M. Nirenberg, and J. D. Watson, went on to win the Nobel prize.

These programs brought great crowds and boosted the membership, but they created a new problem. The awards symposia were held in the spring, a week before the meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, at which ASBC met. F. Putnam, secretary of the ASBC, asked the DOB executive committee if the division could restrict its meetings to the fall and drop the meeting in the spring. The ASBC then would consider the DOB’s fall meeting as its own. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the ACS Denver meeting in the spring of 1964 where Nirenberg gave his award address with Ochoa as chairman of the symposium. Alton Meister, D. Koshland, S. Moore, W. Stein, and Fritz Lipmann were all participants as chairmen 4 and speakers. It was pointed out that such an assembly of biochemists should be heard by much greater numbers than attended the spring meeting; the fall meeting offered an opportunity for much greater crowds. After an exchange of mutual meetings of the ASBC council and the DOB executive committee, the division decided to drop its spring meeting.

Public awareness became a byword in scientific societies as the Government’s need for technical knowledge grew along with the dollar-volume of appropriations affecting both science and society. By the 1970s, many biochemists had advanced to positions of political influence. W. D. McElroy of Johns Hopkins had become Director of the National Science at Foundation; P. Handler of Duke, who had been Chairman of the National Science Board, became President of the National Academy of Sciences; H. E. Carter of Illinois became Chairman of the National Science Board; C. Baker was appointed Director of the National Cancer Institute. In 1971, six months before Congress began hearings on the new multimillion dollar National Cancer Attack Program, a symposium was organized to take place at the national meeting in Washington on the Role of Basic Research on the Current Status of the Cancer Problem. The subject was important, because legislation was aimed principally at clinical treatment rather than research. F. Putnam, E. Frei (later Director of the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute in Boston), and Dr. E. Farber (President of the Association for Cancer Research), participated in the program. Following the symposium, McElroy, Handler and Baker were to hold a panel discussion. Congressman Paul Rogers, who had planned to attend, could not because he had opened his hearings on the same day, but Congressman Claude Pepper did appear and offered his support. More than 1000 members crowded the room.

The Pan American Association of Biochemical Societies (PAABS) was founded in 197 to foster communcation between biochemists in Latin America and their North American colleagues. The organizers of this group included B. Horecker, a member of the division’s executive committee for several years and a former president of ASBC, Dr. P. P. Cohen, also a former member of the executive committee, and Dr. W. J. Whelan. The first president of PAABS was Nobel laureate and biochemist L. Leloir. During the years between 1976 and the end of the 20th century, public and private funding of research in biological chemistry increased substantially. Research by the faculty of many chemistry departments, as well as biochemistry departments in medical schools, was supported by the National Institutes of Health as well as the National Science Foundation. Work on various aspects of enzyme action, which had occupied many members of the Division, had traditionally involved studies of protein modification and reaction kinetics. By the year 2000, advances in this area were more heavily dependent on the results of high resolution structural studies, on new methods for gene sequencing and manipulation, and on combinatorial chemistry. The human genome project was at the point of completion, promising to provide major new leads for drug design on the basis of sequence comparisons. New information about protein structures was arriving more rapidly than it could be assimilated, hastening the need for development of the new field of “bioinformatics”. Members of the Division found it necessary to become familiar with genetic engineering and biotechnology, and the Division became represented on the Biotechnology Secretariat.

By the early 80’s the pedagogical gulf between chemists and biochemists had widened dangerously at the undergraduate level, just as the number of undergraduates majoring at the interface was increasing. Some students were arriving in biochemistry and advanced biology courses without having encountered an equilibrium constant, a redox potential, a rate equation, a metal complex or an amide bond. One recommended bridge was to require Biochemistry in ACS-approved Chemistry curricula. In 1992, The ACS Committee on Science organized a symposium at the Carnegie Institution of Washington with Maxine Singer providing introductory remarks, B. Alberts, P. Berg, R. Breslow, and H. Gray speaking. The participants agreed that teaching freshman chemistry was of central importance and that appropriate text material was not available. By the end of the 90’s, new text materials were appearing. In the paperback “Principles of Chemistry in Biology”, book chapter headings from introductory chemistry texts were illustrated with principles from biology, written by Division members V. Bloomfield, B. Gaffney, D. Poulter, Elizabeth Theil, J. Valentine and R. Wolfenden, members of the Inorganic (G. McClendon, J. Penner-Hahn, E. Theil and J. Valentine) and Organic (D. Poulter) Divisions, and edited by Theil. In 1998, the ACS Committee on Professional Training instituted a requirement of three credits of biochemistry as part of the undergraduate chemistry core curriculum in chemistry, either as a separate course or integrated into other core courses, beginning in 2001. As of the year 2000 all but 20 of the 600 chemistry programs approved by the ACS taught a biochemistry course on a regular basis.

The Twenty-First Century and Beyond

The Division of Biological Chemistry has grown by 2006 to over 6000 members. The Chairs of the Division in recent years include E. Stadtman, T. Bruice, E. Cordes, P. Schimmel, S. Benkovic, P. Frey, G. Kenyon, R. Matthews, J. Kirsch, R. Colman, R. Wolfenden and Vern Schramm. The Division has a long history of yearly meetings, which have rotated on an irregular basis between the Spring and Fall meetings of the American Chemical Society. In 1999, a decision was made to meet on a continuing basis during American Chemical Society fall meeting. The highlight of Divisions program at these meetings are symposia to honor the recipients of the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistruy and the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry. These awards recognize the accomplishments of younger investigators many of whom have gone on to win Nobel Prizes [Irwin Rose, Paul Boyer, Thomas Cech, Ronald Vale, and Gerald Edelman]. In 1985 the Repligen Award for Chemistry of Biological Processes was established to recognize outstanding contributions to the understanding of the chemistry of biological processes, with emphasis on structure, function and mechanism. The recipients of this award over the past twenty years are recognized as pioneers in the development of our understanding of the mechanism of chemical reactions that occur in biological systems, and include G. Weber, T. C. Bruice, R. Abeles, S. Benkovic, H. Scheraga, F. Westheimer, J. Knowles, J. Klinman, W. W. Cleland and W. P. Jencks,

  • Check out information on Irwin Rose the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover.

In this, its 10th decade of existence within The American Chemical Society, The Division of Biological Chemistry is older than almost all of its members. It is young in the sense that its roots are still branching and growing in an era where it continues to expand its role within the ACS. The Division is supportive of its younger members, whose development is essential to its well being. If you are a member of The American Chemical Society with interests in Biology, then we enourage your participatation in the Division’s activities and your input into the role of the Division within the ACS.