Immunobiology – History

Immunology has a very long history at Washington University. From the time that the Medical School was founded in 1891, most of basic and applied immunology has centered in three Departments–the Departments of Pathology, Microbiology, and Medicine.

The first major figure in immunology was Leo Loeb. Loeb was the second Chairman of Pathology with his tenure from 1923 to 1938. With him starts the very close association of Pathology with Immunology at the School. Loeb was one of the first investigators to study the relationship between self and non-self by using tissue transplantation. He postulated the presence of genetic factors that controlled whether grafts were tolerated or rejected. Loeb used both inbred guinea pigs and the first inbred strains of mice. He was one of the most important figures in histocompatibility research prior to the definition of the MHC locus by Gorer in the late 1930s.

Immunology activities expanded greatly in the 1960s and 1970s. The Department of Microbiology hosted immunology until 1992. Two prominent Heads of Microbiology were Herman Eisen and Joseph Davie. Eisen made his seminal and now classical studies on the affinities of antibodies and on affinity maturation examining the anti-hapten responses. Davie, who followed Eisen as Head of Microbiology, continued to examine the cellular response of B cells to haptens and made one of the first quantitative analysis of B cell responses.

Paul Lacy became Head of Pathology in 1961 and developed the procedures for isolation of islets of Langerhans for use in transplantation as the treatment for diabetes. The basic principles of islet transplantation and the passenger leukocyte concept were developed by him in close association with Joe Davie. At about the same time, Donald Shreffler joined the faculty to become Head of Genetics. Shreffler, with Jan Klein, made the classic observations on the genetics of H-2, the MHC gene locus of the mouse. He also described the association of complement protein with the H-2 gene locus.

In the 1960s and 1970s, immunology started to develop strongly in the Allergy and Rheumatology Divisions of the Department of Medicine. Charlie Parker headed the Allergy Division and made extensive studies on the allergic and anaphylactic responses. John Atkinson discovered the complement regulatory proteins as a member and Chief of the Rheumatology Division.

In the late 1980s, with the arrival of Emil Unanue as Head of Pathology, immunology research at Washington University began to move to the Departments of Pathology and Medicine. At this time, Microbiology began changing its emphasis to microbial pathogenesis. In recognition of this new emphasis, the Department of Pathology changed its name in 1996. Today the Department of Pathology & Immunology is the Department that centers and integrates all immunology activities of the School. In recognition of the high concentration of immunology research in the department, Skip Virgin, who became chairman of the department in 2006, decided to create a new Division called Immunobiology.  He appointed Andrey Shaw, to lead this new division. In 2015, Gwen Randolph was appointed to head the division.

With the recognition that inflammation underpins a variety of diseases including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and others, immunology research has permeated into many areas of research in the university and is now considered one of the top life science groups at the University.

Immunobiology activities at Washington University are represented by more than 50 laboratories within 8 different Departments. The Department of Pathology & Immunology has the highest number of immunologists and serves to coordinate and center all the various activities, including the Graduate Program in Immunology offered through the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. The Department also coordinates all the teaching of immunology for both medical and graduate students. The other Departments with prominent immunology faculty include the Department of Medicine, particularly with the Division of RheumatologyPediatrics with its Immunology and Rheumatology Division; and Molecular Microbiology with an extensive program in pathogenesis that includes immunology.


Learn more about the history of the Department.