Department History

In 1981, recognizing that genetics was an important emerging field, Harvard University established a new Department of Genetics at the Medical School. The relevance of genetics had previously been recognized at Harvard. Important advances in human genetics had been made at affiliated institutes such as Children’s Hospital and the MGH. Elsewhere on the Quadrangle and in our sister faculty in Cambridge, molecular genetics had already produced dramatic discoveries that established the foundation of the science.  However, genetics had no proper Departmental home, and the opportunities to begin to translate knowledge from the basic to the applied were too persuasive to be ignored. Hence, the Medical School recruited Philip Leder from the NIH to establish the new Department of Genetics.

Also in 1981, Hoechst AG (now Aventis), a major German chemical and pharmaceutical company, struck an historic agreement with the MGH to create a new Molecular Biology Department. Howard Goodman moved from UCSF to head this new unit. In order to attract the best possible faculty and to give them the advantage of affiliation with a graduate program from which they could recruit students, he realized that it would be important for members of the MGH Department of Molecular Biology to be full members of a basic science department at Harvard. Due to their shared vision for pioneering the then nascent field of modern genetics and a common belief in the importance of providing a maximally supportive environment to allow individual scientific programs to flourish, Goodman joined forces with Leder in establishing the new Department of Genetics. Thus, from its very start, the Department has had two main units. While separated geographically, they nonetheless functioned as a single department with all members involved in mentoring junior faculty and in recruiting new faculty, a tradition that continues today

As noted above, important Genetic research took place in the affiliated hospitals (most notably in the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, MGH, Beth Israel Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) before the formal creation of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. As translational genetics grew, the Hospitals expanded their efforts in both the basic and translational areas. The convergence of interests at the hospital and the Department of Genetics has provided the opportunity to conduct joint recruitments of new faculty with primary appointments as full members of the Department of Genetics whose laboratories are located within the affiliated hospitals. This mechanism has allowed both the Department and the affiliated institutions to acquire greater strength in new research areas while at the same time providing bridges linking their activities.