By Thomas Westfall, Ph.D.
The Department of Pharmacology and Physiology has had a long and distinguished history of excellence starting with the first school of medicine in 1842 and continuing on to the current school established in 1903 with the acquisition of the Marion-Sims Beaumont College of Medicine. A detailed account of the department has been written in a book authored by Thomas C. Westfall entitled: “The History of Pharmacology and Physiology at Saint Louis University; published by Reedy Press, St. Louis, 2020.
Early Department of Pharmacology (Materia Medica) and Physiology (1842-1855)
The Departments of Pharmacology and Physiology were separate entities when the school of medicine was the first school established west of the Mississippi river. At the time the School of Medicine was the only school associated with a university not located on the Atlantic coast. One of the early chairs of physiology at this time, Dr. Daniel Brainard, went on to establish the Rush Medical College in Chicago, and also help found the first general hospitals in that city. Due to the hostility of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic activities of the “Know-Nothings” movement at the time, the School of Medicine severed its relationship with Saint Louis University in 1855.
Departments in the Current School of Medicine
In 1903, Saint Louis University established its current medical school through the acquisition of the Marion-Sims Beaumont College of Medicine. Pharmacology and Physiology was a single department from 1903-21, became separate departments from 1921-90 and were merged once again in 1990.
Independent Departments (1921-90)
From 1921 until 1990 the departments were independent of each other and their chairs were distinguished scientists and scholars that helped establish an outstanding national and international reputation in the disciplines of pharmacology and physiology at Saint Louis University. Of particular note was Dr. John Auer, the first chair the Department of Pharmacology. In 1908 he was one of the 18 founding members of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) and was instrumental in bringing the prestigious Fall meeting of ASPET to Saint Louis University in 1923. He was elected and served as president of ASPET from 1924 to 1927. Among his many research accomplishments was devising a method of ventilating lungs with anesthetic gas but without lung movements; a method soon adopted worldwide, marking the beginning of modern endotracheal anesthesia.
Another notable leader during this time was Dr. Alrick Hertzman, who served as chair of the Department of Physiology from 1928-1966 . During his tenure he established the physiology department as one of the leading laboratories in the world studying temperature regulations. His research led to the development of a survival suit utilized by the US Air Force and in space exploration to protect pilots exposed to extremes of temperature.
During Dr. Thomas Westfall’s tenure as the sixth Chair of Pharmacology (1979-1990), there was an infusion of new faculty and a major reorganization. Research, training and teaching efforts were all expanded and there was a dramatic increase in extramural support (over 20-fold). The department gained an international reputation in the fields of signal transduction, cardiovascular pharmacology and neuropharmacology.
Current Department of Pharmacology and Physiology (1990-present)
In October of 1990 the departments of Physiology and Pharmacology merged once more to form the Department of Pharmacological and Physiological Science with the endowed William Beaumont Professor and Chair created for the Chairperson. Credit for the development of the department, as it now exists is given to Dr. Thomas C. Westfall, the first William Beaumont Professor and Chair. He effectively oversaw the integration of the independent departments of pharmacology and physiology to a single thriving entity. There was recruitment of new faculty with a major expansion of research, training and teaching activities. The graduate training program was reorganized and expanded, and a NIH funded training grant secured, which is still in place today. Extramural funding continued to increase and the NIH ranking of the department reached 25 (out of 130) four times in the 1990’s. Among other accomplishments, Dr. Westfall was elected President of the American Association of Medical School Pharmacology Chairs and was an internationally recognized expert in the neuropharmacology of nicotine, presynaptic receptors and sympathetic neurotransmission. Eight former faculty members of the department went on to assume leadership roles in prestigious academic departments.
Dr. Thomas Burris (2013-18) was the second William Beaumont professor and chair and is credited with bringing drug discovery and studies in chemical biology to the research repertoire of the department. He also introduced the plan for an undergraduate and Master of Science (MS) degree programs in chemical biology. The department was renamed as Pharmacology and Physiology during this time.
Drs. Mark Voigt and Daniela Salvemini both served admirably as interim chairs between 2018 and 2021, during a tumultuous time that almost saw the end of basic science departments at Saint Louis University; a concept that was ultimately abandoned.
Currently the third William Beaumont Professor and Chair is Dr. Daniela Salvemini, who also serves as the Director of the Henry and Amelia Nasrallah Center for Neuroscience. Dr. Salvemini is an internationally recognized scholar and investigator and has been awarded numerous awards and extramural grants for her work in inflammation and pain research. She is expanding the research, training and teaching efforts of the department, recruitment of new faculty and placing the department among the elite of academic departments worldwide.