1890s

Led formational work in the study of ecology

Botanist Henry Chandler Cowles’s study of ecological succession in the Indiana Dunes along the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the late 1890s opened a new field of inquiry in the natural sciences: ecology. The investigation of a changing natural landscape carries increasing importance amid growing concerns about our environment.

Henry Chandler Cowles (second from the right), Professor in Botany

1906

Isolated beta cells, leading to the discovery of insulin

In a series of investigations beginning in 1906, Robert R. Bensley demonstrated that the islets of Langerhans were specialized elements of the pancreas. He developed staining methods that distinguished between alpha cells and the beta cells that produce insulin. Bensley's work was fundamental to the discovery of insulin. Bensley later developed techniques to disassemble cells and isolate cellular components by spinning them in a centrifuge, a technique he used in 1934 to isolate mitochondria and analyze them.

1910

Identified the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Pathologist Howard Ricketts discovered the organism that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever before his death in 1910, providing the basis for treating the disease. Today the Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory at Argonne National Laboratory is a regional biocontainment laboratory that supports research for the detection, prevention, and elimination of anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, influenza, plague, and emerging infectious diseases.

Today’s Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory conducts research on emerging infectious diseases.

1916

Zoologist Ernest Everett Just

Discovered significant aspect of cell cleavage

Ernest Everett Just, PhD 1916, worked with University of Chicago zoologist Frank Lillie at what is now the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. During dissertation research for his PhD in zoology, he made an important discovery about cell cleavage, showing that the sperm entry point determines the first cleavage plane in the egg of the marine annelid Nereis limbata.

1923

Discovered use of ethylene gas as an anesthetic

In 1923, University of Chicago physiologist Arno B. Luckhardt, SB 1906, PhD 1911, MD 1912, discovered the anesthetic use of ethylene gas. In the 20 years following his discovery, ethylene came into general use as an anesthetic in major operations.

Arno B. Luckhardt, Professor in Physiology

1930s

Irving Waxman, Director of the Center for Endoscopic Research and Therapeutics, performs an endoscopy with today’s state of the art equipment.

Transformed the field of gastroenterology

After joining the UChicago faculty in 1935, gastroenterologist Joseph B. Kirsner pioneered modern understanding and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease and was one of the first to show the link between ulcerative colitis and increased risk of colon cancer. Kirsner also introduced revolutionary guidelines for how physicians should care for patients and helped found the American Gastroenterological Association, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

1941

Introduced hormonal treatment of cancer

In 1941, cancer researcher Charles B. Huggins treated patients suffering from advanced prostate cancer by removing the hormone the cancers needed to grow. Hormonal treatment has since become a mainstay of care for several types of cancer, including breast and gynecological cancers.

Nobel laureate Charles B. Huggins, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in Surgery, working in his laboratory

1942

Julian H. Lewis, PhD 1915

Debunked race-based blood typing

Julian H. Lewis, PhD 1915, the first African American to hold both an MD and a PhD, conducted groundbreaking research on race and blood typing that led to his hallmark book, Biology of the Negro, in 1942. His book was a precursor to the field of anthropathology, which looks at racial differences in the expression of disease, and is credited with changing many people’s perspectives on race. Lewis was also the first African American to teach at the University of Chicago, where he was a noted expert in immunology.

1949

Performed the first bone marrow transplant

In 1949, medical researcher Leon O. Jacobson, MD’39, performed the first bone marrow transplant. He discovered he could save a mouse whose bone marrow and spleen had been destroyed by transplanting donated spleen tissue into the mouse. The procedure now helps thousands of patients with cancer and other diseases each year.

Leon O. Jacobson, the Joseph Regenstein Professor in Medicine, in his laboratory

1958

Cancer researcher Elwood Jensen (right), the Charles B. Huggins Distinguished Service Professor, with Nobel laureate Charles B. Huggins

Discovered the hormone-cancer mechanism

Building on the work of cancer researcher Charles B. Huggins, Elwood Jensen and fellow medical researcher Eugene Desombre identified the precise mechanism through which hormones drive cancer—by binding to a receptor protein in cells. The 1958 finding opened a new therapeutic front in breast cancer, leading to targeted treatments credited with saving many lives each year.

1965

Discovered proinsulin, advancing diabetes treatment

Biochemist Donald F. Steiner, SM’56, MD’56, discovered proinsulin, the first “pro-hormone” and precursor to insulin. The 1965 finding led to the synthetic production of human insulin, markedly improving therapy for diabetes sufferers, and laid the groundwork for improved understanding of how other proteins in the body are made.

Donald F. Steiner, the A. N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

1974

A reconstruction of Lucy at the Warsaw Museum of Evolution

Discovered a previously unknown hominin

On a survey in Ethiopia, in 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, AM’70, PhD’74, discovered “Lucy,” a 3.2 million-year-old bipedal hominin skeleton that was 40 percent intact. Classified in 1978 as the first known member of Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy is a direct ancestor of the modern human. The discovery changed our understanding of human evolution.

1975

Discovered cancer can be genetic

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and geneticist Janet Davison Rowley, LAB’42, PhB’45, SB’46, MD’48, discovered the first consistent chromosomal abnormalities associated with cancer in the 1970s, demonstrating a link between cancer and genetics. She later was a key player in the development of the first precisely targeted anti-cancer drug.

Janet Davison Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, and Human Genetics, in her laboratory

1977

Eugene Goldwasser, the Alice Hogge and Arthur A. Baer Professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Discovered source of red blood cell formation

Biochemist Eugene Goldwasser isolated erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone behind red blood cell formation. The 1977 discovery led to the development of the first blockbuster drug of the biotech age, which has since treated millions with anemia.

1978

Pioneered clinical medical ethics

Physician Mark Siegler began teaching clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s. The MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, founded in 1984 as the first academic institute dedicated to clinical medical ethics, supports the study of ethical issues raised during everyday care. Its work aims to improve physicians’ skills and performance in decision-making and caring for patients.

Mark Siegler, the Lindy Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Surgery

1989

Pitohui dichrous

Discovered the first known poisonous bird, revealing evolutionary insights

As a graduate student, John Dumbacher, SM’95, PhD’97, discovered that the Pitohui bird in Papua New Guinea carried batrachotoxin, a highly potent neurotoxin. When Dumbacher returned to the University of Chicago, he brought Pitohui feathers with him to an event. A sample was passed along to National Institutes of Health chemist John Daly, who identified the poison in the feathers as the same poison found in the Colombian poison dart frog in 1963. Together, Daly and Dumbacher unraveled a gap in evolutionary understanding. That two animals from different corners of the world would carry the same poison implied that the poison was coming from another creature altogether. And, as it turns out, it was: Both animals fed on a beetle from the genus Choresine and had evolved to carry batrachotoxin and use it in their own defense.

1990

Discovered previously unknown dinosaur species

Beginning in the 1990s, paleontologist Paul Sereno’s discoveries of previously unknown dinosaur species on several continents have contributed to the understanding of the dinosaur family tree and to the larger question of how evolution works over millions of years.

Paul Sereno, Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy

2006

A model of Tiktaalik roseae

Discovered evolutionary link between fish and land animals

In 2006, paleontologist Neil Shubin discovered fossils of Tiktaalik roseae, the missing evolutionary link between fish and the first animals that waddled out of water onto land 375 million years ago. Shubin’s key discovery advanced evolutionary biology, and his best-selling book and television series sparked popular interest in the subject.

2013

Developed first NIH-approved cloud-based computing system to process cancer data

In 2013, data scientist Robert Grossman developed the Bionimbus Protected Data Cloud, the first cloud-based computing system approved by the National Institutes of Health to process data from the Cancer Genome Atlas, the agency’s flagship cancer genetics study. In late 2014, Grossman became director of the Genomic Data Commons, an NIH-funded project based on Bionimbus that will be the nation’s most comprehensive data facility when completed.

Robert Grossman, Professor in Medicine

2014

Reconstructed Spinosaurus skeleton

Helped solve the puzzle of Spinosaurus, the first dinosaur known to swim

One hundred million years ago, the Sahara was home to the largest predatory dinosaur known to have existed: Spinosaurus. German scientist Ernst Stromer unearthed the original bones of Spinosaurus at the turn of the 20th century, but they were lost in World War II. The giant dinosaur—larger than a T. rex—then eluded scientists until 2014, when an international team, including UChicago paleontologists Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno, analyzed newly acquired fossils, remains from museum collections, and historical records to render the dinosaur’s skeleton and reveal it as the first truly semi-aquatic dinosaur.

2015

Sequenced the octopus genome for the first time

UChicago neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale and Caroline Albertin, PhD’16, along with a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, sequenced the genome of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), the first cephalopod ever to be fully sequenced. “With a few notable exceptions, the octopus basically has a normal invertebrate genome that’s just been completely rearranged, like it’s been put into a blender and mixed,” said Albertin. “This leads to genes being placed in new genomic environments with different regulatory elements and was a completely unexpected finding.”

Octopus bimaculoides

2015

Reconstructions of Agilodocodon scansorius

Discovered earliest-known arboreal and subterranean mammals

In 2015, UChicago biologist Zhe-Xi Luo and doctoral student David Grossnickle, along with a team of other researchers from UChicago and the Beijing Museum of Natural History, discovered fossils of the earliest-known tree-dwelling and subterranean mammals in China. Agilodocodon scansorius is the earliest-known tree-dwelling mammaliaform (extinct relative of modern mammals), and Docofossor brachydactylus is the earliest-known subterranean mammaliaform. The fossils of these shrew-sized animals suggest that early mammals were as ecologically diverse as modern mammals.