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History of the Department

David Gasser

“The First 48 Years of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania”

An overall summary of the first 48 years of the department is given by David Gasser, who joined the department in 1972 as an Assistant Professor and retired in 2014 as an Emeritus Professor. See interviews with Dr. Barker, Dr. Emanuel, Dr. Mennuti, and Dr. Kazazian >>>>>

The Department of Genetics was established as the Department of Medical Genetics in 1965 as a new direction for The Henry Phipps Institute; an Institute that was founded in 1903 for the study, treatment and prevention of tuberculosis and subsequently broadened to include research in other communicable diseases.

The School of Medicine realized that with the increasing role genetics was playing in clinical medicine, it deserved Departmental recognition. Accordingly, the School recruited Rupert E. Billingham, F.R.S., an internationally known English tissue transplantation immunologist who had come to the Wistar Institute in 1955, as the Department’s first Chair. Accompanying Dr. Billingham from Wistar to form the “nucleus” of the new Department in 1965 were Dr. Paul Moorhead (a cytogeneticist), Dr. Andrzej Kozinski (a phage geneticist), Dr. Darcy Wilson (an immunologist), and Dr. Willys Silvers (a mammalian geneticist). Dr. Billingham also recruited Dr. Wayne Streilein, a young internist who had completed his medical school and residency training here at Penn, into the Department.

In 1971, Dr. Billingham left Penn (taking Streilein with him) to become Chair of Cell Biology at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas; and in 1972, Dr. William Mellman, who was Penn trained and a Professor of Pediatrics was appointed the second chair of the Department. Dr. Mellman had a very strong background in both cytogenetics and biochemical genetics and was a major figure in the increasingly important field of “Human Genetics.” At Mellman’s suggestion the name of the Department was changed from “Medical” to “Human Genetics.”

During Mellman’s period as the Chair, Dr. Harry Harris, F.R.S. was recruited. Dr. Harris had been Galton Professor and head of the Department of Human Genetics at the University College London (succeeding L.S. Penrose). Dr. Harris who really was the “father of Human Biochemical Genetics,” (and the author of “The Principles of Human Biochemical Genetics”) came to Penn as a Harnwell Professor. Dr. Mellman and Dr. Moorhead had both spent sabbatical years in Dr. Harris’ lab in London and the school was fortunate to attract him to Philadelphia.

In 1981, Dr. Roy Schmickel, a Professor of Pediatrics at Michigan, was appointed as the third Chair of the Department. It was during Schmickel’s term as Chair that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was established at Penn and as a result, five faculty members recruited during Schmickel’s term were all given Hughes appointments.

In 1987 Dr. Willys Silvers was appointed acting Chair of the department. During Dr. Silvers’ term the department’s name was again changed, this time to “Genetics.”

Dr. Haig Kazazian, who was Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was recruited as the Department’s fourth Chair in 1994. Dr. Kazazian oversaw a significant increase in both the size of the department and overall N.I.H. funding, from roughly $4 million to $10 million per year.

Dr. Tom Kadesch was appointed Interim Chair of Genetics in the summer of 2006, bringing over 21 years of experience as a member of the Department.  He successfully recruited two junior faculty members and a PIK Associate Professor.  He also encouraged a sense of community among investigators who share an interest in genetics, hosting two genetics symposiums on campus.

We were all deeply saddened by the untimely death of Dr. Kadesch in January 2011, but once again, the Department found strength within its own faculty, naming Dr. Stephen Liebhaber the new Interim Chair. Dr. Liebhaber boasts a lifetime commitment to Penn, as he has been a member of the Department since 1982. He successfully recruited two junior faculty members, Dr. Yoseph Barash and Dr. Casey Brown, during his time as Interim Chair.

In 2014 Dr. Daniel Rader was appointed as the Department's fifth standing Chair. Dr. Rader has been a faculty member at Penn since 1994 in the Department of Medicine engaged in research in human genetics, model systems, and translational medicine.