Department History

Dr. Alonzo Clark

The Department of Pathology and Cell Biology has a long and distinguished history. Its former members had significant roles in introducing new ideas to American medicine, including the techniques of pathology, the introduction of the germ theory of disease, and modern public health practices. The Department of Pathology itself has a history going back to the mid-19th Century. The Department of Anatomy has an even longer history, dating back to the founding of the College of Physicians and Surgeons  (P&S)in 1767. The two departments merged in 2005 to form the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology.

The department's earliest known history begins with the first Chairman of Pathology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Alonzo Clark (1807-1887). Dr. Clark held the position of Chair of Practice from 1855-1883, then from 1875-1885 while also serving as acting Dean of P&S. Through his work, Dr. Clark was able to discontinue medical practices that were determined to be useless, like the practice of bleeding and giving mercurials, and a substitution of opium.

In later years, the position of Chair was held by Dr. T. Mitchell Prudden, who was a graduate of P&S and the first Chairman of the Pathology Department after it separated from the Department of Medicine in 1893. In 1878, after graduating from P&S, he went to Europe where he learned the new science of bacteriology, which he brought back to a laboratory funded by the P&S Alumni Association. After returning to Germany in 1885 to take Robert Koch’s course in microbiology, Dr. Prudden founded the first bacteriology course for medical students in New York and probably in America. In 1892, he was instrumental in introducing microbiology to the New York Board of Health to screen for cholera and diphtheria. Dr. Prudden was one of the great influences behind the formation of a National Bureau of Health.

Moving ahead to the 20th century, Dr. Arthur Purdy Stout was the head of Surgical Pathology at P&S from 1928-1951. He was an expert in the diagnosis of tumors, particularly of the peripheral nervous system, but his greatest contribution was in the development of surgical pathology as an essential part of both pathology and surgery. Dr. Stout understood the importance of histopathology in the classification of disease and used this knowledge to link clinical presentation to patient outcomes. These insights led to observations that form the basis of modern surgical pathology.

College of Physicians and Surgeons Certificate 1874-1875
College of Physicians and Surgeons Certificate 1874-1875

Before 1960, clinically related pathology services were organized in a different manner. When the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center was established in 1928, each Hospital or Division had its own pathologists. The Medical School had a Pathology Department. These pathologists did autopsies, taught the second-year pathology course, conducted research, and participated in various conferences, such as the Clinico-Pathologic Conference (CPC). The pathologist at Babies Hospital was Dr. Dorothy Andersen who first showed that Celiac Disease and Cystic Fibrosis were different entities. The pathologist at the Neurologic Institute was Dr. Abner Wolff, at the New York Orthopedic Hospital was Dr. Zent Garber, at the Squire Urologic Clinic was Dr. Meyer Melicow, at the Sloan Hospital for Women was Dr. Engler, and at the Eye Institute was Dr. Al Reese. Surgical specimens removed by Surgeons in General Surgery were studied by the pathologists in the Division of Surgical Pathology which was part of the Department of Surgery.  It wasn't until 1960 when chair Donald McKay unified the efforts of Columbia's pathologists by consolidating activity into a single Department of Pathology.

A major medical advancement in transfusion medicine was made by Columbia clinical pathologists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Prior to this time, Rh disease, a form of hemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn, claimed the lives of approximately 10,000 babies annually in the United States alone. However, it was virtually eradicated thanks to the efforts of Drs. Vincent Freda and John Gorman at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Freda, an obstetrician, and Dr. Gorman, who completed his residency training in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology at Columbia in 1960 and who was the Blood Bank Director at Columbia, were awarded the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 1980 for their role in virtually eliminating this devastating disease.

In the 1970s, under Dr. Donald W. King, Chairman from 1967 to 1983, all separate clinical pathology laboratories associated with the specialty hospitals were integrated into a major clinical pathology division of the central department under Dr. Ray Gambino. In the 1960s and 1970s, Drs. Arthur Purdy Stout and Rafael Lattes at Columbia were considered among the best diagnostic surgical pathology groups in the country. By 1980, the Department of Pathology, with some 102 faculty members in 13 divisions, was the largest professional pathology department in a single facility in the country. It produced a large number of professors, had hundreds of publications, and initiated new postgraduate educational conferences, such as the internationally known Renal Biopsy Course, which is still running today.

In 1987, Dr. Michael Shelanski became Chairman of the Department of Pathology at Columbia University. During Dr. Shelanski's 28-year tenure as Chair, the department grew significantly through major faculty recruitments, including Carol Mason, Ronald Liem, Lloyd Green, Riccardo Dalla-Favera and many others. The founding of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain, along with subsequent mergers with the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology and the Motor Neuron Center, and the addition of several clinical and molecular laboratories resulted in the emergence of  the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology as one of the nation’s leading academic pathology departments. Under Dr. Shelanski’s leadership, the MD-PhD program, graduate PhD programs, and Residency program were markedly expanded and led to hundreds of well trained and scientifically accomplished graduates. The research programs in the Department expanded significantly during this period, especially in neurobiology, cancer, immunology, and cell biology. In 2004, University Professor Dr. Richard Axel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system," adding to the long list of distinguished honors held by Pathology and Cell Biology faculty. For the department, the 21st century heralded academic and clinical advances discovered and developed by Columbia Pathology and Cell Biology faculty.

A new era of the department began in 2015 with the announcement of Dr. Kevin A. Roth as the Chair of the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University. His goals for the future of the department include enhanced national ranking for NIH research funding, continued advancement in personalized medicine, expansion and promotion of collaborative research opportunities, and further growth of the faculty and training programs offered by the department with an emphasis on diversity and mentorship. Under Dr. Roth's vision, the distinctive history of the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology will continue to be made as the department will continue to evolve and expand in the years to come.