Mural in Biochemistry building
Murals in the Biochemical Sciences Complex were painted by John Steuart Curry in the 1940s and include this one entitled, “The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research.” Learn more about the murals and the restoration process. Source: UW–Madison Archives.

The Department of Biochemistry was founded in 1883 as the Department of Agricultural Chemistry (the name was changed through faculty vote and college approval in 1938). Since, it has built on a long tradition of excellence in basic research that has led to important practical advances. A modern department with emphases in cellular regulation, molecular genetics, protein structure, hormone action, virology, and developmental biology has been built on this strong historical foundation.

The department’s contributions have dramatically changed our understanding of the chemical basis of life and illuminate how a molecular understanding of basic biological problems can improve society. Among the important discoveries made in the department are:

    • Development of fermentation methods that led to the large-scale preparation of penicillin and other antibiotics
    • Development of methods for preservation of sperm, triggering the artificial insemination industry
    • Discovery of the anti-coagulants dicoumarol and warfarin and their uses against heart disease and as rodenticides
    • Discovery of the key features of the incorporation of atmospheric nitrogen into amino acids
    • First chemical synthesis of a gene
    • Development of methods for the kinetic analysis of enzyme reactions
    • Discovery and identification of the hormonal form of Vitamin D, and use of its analogs to treat disease

Among the colorful and visionary faculty who contributed to this outstanding array of accomplishments are Stephen Babcock, E.B. Hart, Conrad Elvehjem, E.V. McCollum, Harry Steenbock, Marvin Johnson, Robert Burris, Karl Paul Link, Esmond Snell, Gobind Khorana (a 1968 Nobel Laureate), and Henry Lardy. Among the past and current members of the department are at least 18 members of the National Academy of Sciences.

A woman sits at an electron microscope
A woman sits at an electron microscope in a Biochemistry lab in June 1970. Source: UW–Madison Archives.

The Department of Biochemistry has trained hundreds of Ph.D.’s, including 1997 Nobel Laureate Paul Boyer and 1972 Nobel Laureate Stanford Moore, and thousands of undergraduate students.

The department is comprised of roughly 115 graduate students, 30 postdoctoral researchers, 55 technicians and other research staff, 32 faculty, 75 undergraduate researchers, and approximately 300 undergraduate majors. During the 2022-2023 academic year, more than 2,200 undergraduates across campus enrolled in our courses. Our highly effective teaching program has won campus-wide recognition through awards for classroom instruction. The expertise of some of our outstanding teachers has become a standard for biochemistry education. The seminal, widely-used textbook, Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry, was co-authored by two outstanding professors in the department, Michael Cox and David Nelson (emeritus), and updated editions are additionally co-authored by Aaron Hoskins, who is also professor in the department.

On this proud foundation, driven by the desire to find molecular explanations for basic biological phenomena, the department’s interests have widened and grown to embrace a wider diversity of areas and organisms. Central problems in developmental biology, protein structure and function, molecular genetics, nutrition, metabolism, enzymology and more dominate our research environment. Our breadth of approaches is invigorating and spans molecular biology, protein structure, molecular physiology and endocrinology, and synthetic and analytical chemistry. Interdisciplinary research is not only possible but expected. We relish the challenges ahead, combining modern methodologies and pioneering approaches with established traditions in an ambitious effort to understand the molecular basis of life.

Explore our faculty’s current research interests »