10 Decades of Impact

A tractor with a tiller attachment plows a field

100 Years of Life Sciences at UC Davis


Still officially a part of UC Berkeley, the Davis campus begins offering four-year degrees. Its name changes from the University Farm to the Northern Branch of the College of Agriculture.

  • 1922: The Department of Zoology is established.
  • 1922: Courtland Mudge joins the faculty as the campus’ first bacteriologist.
  • 1923: Tracy Storer teaches the first zoology courses, required for animal husbandry majors. Between 21-47 students take his class each year from 1923-1928.
  • 1924: The Department of Botany is established, with courses mandatory for plant science majors.
  • 1928: The school’s only zoologist, Tracy Storer, opens a museum with animal specimens and publishes influential papers on rodent control to prevent bubonic plague outbreaks.


The first botany faculty arrive, including sugar-beet expert Katherine Esau. Research and teaching grow throughout the decade as the university continues to develop an identity distinct from UC Berkeley.

  • 1930s: Donald M. Reynolds assists in discovery of streptomycin.
  • 1931: Botanist Katherine Esau joins the faculty; her research focuses on plant viruses damaging California crops.
  • 1931: Botanist Alden S. Crafts is hired to conduct research on strategies for agricultural weed control.
  • 1934: The 17 female students on campus organize the Cal Aggie Women’s Association.
  • 1938: Crafts wins a Guggenheim fellowship to study the functioning of sieve tubes of plants.
  • 1939: With the advent of a home economics program in the 1930s, the female student population at Davis rises to 168.


World War II brings academic pursuits to a halt as campus closes to become an Army training site. When college life resumes after 1945, so many students arrive on the GI Bill that residents must bunk in the gym.

  • 1940s: Graduate instruction in microbiology begins.
  • 1940: Katherine Esau wins a Guggenheim fellowship to study the anatomy and physiology of vascular plants.
  • 1942: Botany faculty publish the first-ever college textbook on weed control, based on research conducted here.
  • 1943: The entire Davis campus is converted into an Army training facility for the duration of World War II. Faculty not in military service or otherwise needed at Davis are transferred to Berkeley or UCLA.
  • 1946: Department of Bacteriology forms (now Microbiology).
  • 1947: Edgar Painter offers the first biochemistry courses; will become its own department in 1958.


UC Davis welcomes the dawn of modern science: 1950 brings a new department, Genetics, and in 1958 the Botany Department acquires campus’ first electron microscope.

  • 1950s: The botany department resides in an old garage near Putah Creek. Student microscopes are illuminated by light bulbs covered by asparagus cans.
  • 1950: G. Ledyard Stebbins founds the Department of Genetics. A leading expert on plant evolution, Stebbins builds a world-renowned evolutionary biology research program at UC Davis.
  • 1953: Katherine Esau publishes a renowned plant anatomy textbook that is still taught today.
  • 1958: Esau acquires the Botany Department’s first electron microscope; researchers pioneer work in that emerging field.
  • 1958: Biochemistry becomes a department. The word “agricultural” is quietly dropped from the title when a founding faculty member tells a painter to leave it off the name on the new department office’s door in Hoagland Hall.
  • 1959: UC Davis begins to offer doctoral degrees in zoology.


National prosperity means a time of generous support for universities, and the UC system grows exponentially throughout the decade. Enrollment at Davis balloons from about 2,000 students at the decade’s start to 12,000 at its end.

  • 1960s: Biological Sciences is an official program, jointly residing in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science.
  • 1964: Department of Animal Physiology (now Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior) forms.
  • 1966: Zoologists help form the Institute of Ecology to study interrelationships between people, plants, animals and the environment.
  • 1967: Unitrans purchases two red double-decker buses from London Transport for $3,500 each, plus $1,000 in shipping costs. Thousands of students ride the iconic London reds to and from class in the ensuing decades.
  • 1969: Students march on the chancellor’s office in peaceful demonstrations to protest the war in Vietnam.


The civil rights and women’s movements bring increased diversity to higher education, while a lower voting age means undergraduates can now have a say in educational policies. Meanwhile, harder economic times bring an end to the golden era of UC growth.

  • 1970s: Zoology classes are reorganized into two categories: “skin out” and “skin in,” officially called Organismal and Environmental Biology, and Cell and Molecular Biology.
  • 1970s: Zoologist Milton Hildebrand teaches the first courses in human sexuality. Enrollment quickly balloons from 700 students the first year to 1,700 per year.
  • 1970: Founding of the Division of Biological Sciences, with six departments: Zoology, Botany, Bacteriology, Animal Physiology, Genetics and Biochemistry and Biophysics.
  • 1972: Ecologist Art Shapiro holds his first annual beer-for-a-butterfly contest, with a pitcher of beer going to the contestant who finds the first cabbage white butterfly of the new year – a tradition that continues today.
  • 1979: The Division becomes administratively independent, and Donald McLean takes the reins as the first dean of biological sciences.


Campus goes digital. With the invention of powerful mainframes and the mass-marketing of affordable PCs, the computer age revolutionizes academia -- changing everything from how scientists conduct research to how undergrads type term papers.

  • 1980s: The Division coordinates campus-wide curricula in basic biological sciences, initiating cross-college collaborations that continue to this day.
  • 1980s: The Department of Botany is the largest of its kind in the nation.
  • 1983: UC Davis obtains the Bodega Marine Laboratory, positioning the university to become a leader of research of coastal ecosystems.
  • 1985: Molecular and cellular biologist Ron Baskin and a UC San Diego colleague patent the “myometer,” a laser-based device that accurately adjusts injured muscles to the appropriate resting length for surgical reattachment.
  • 1988: Bacteriology changes its name to the Department of Microbiology.
  • 1989: Biotechnology pioneer Raymond Rodriguez co-founds and chairs the International Rice Genome Organization, a project that laid the groundwork for sequencing the genome of this essential food staple.
  • 1989: The Center for Population Biology is established and the founding Director, Professor Marc Mangel, is appointed. The Center is located in Storer Hall.


With the completion of the Life Sciences building and the establishment of our five current academic departments, the pieces fall into place for today’s College of Biological Sciences.

  • 1990: The Center for Neuroscience is established. The Center’s first building in South Davis opens in 1992 under the directorship of Professor Michael Gazzaniga.  
  • 1992: Biologist Joel Keizer publishes a model for insulin secretion that has a major impact of science’s understanding of this fundamental biomedical process.
  • 1993: The Division reorganizes and establishes today’s College sections: Evolution and Ecology, Microbiology, Molecular and Cell Biology, Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, and Plant Biology.
  • 1997: Mathematical biologist Marc Mangel co-authors a seminal book on linking field work with lab work, models with data: The Ecological Detective. His book influences a new generation of ecology graduate students.
  • 1997: The 63,000 sq. ft. Life Sciences building is finished and faculty move in. The building brings together more than 30 faculty research laboratories and is architecturally designed to foster collaborations, featuring interconnected labs and common-area spaces that house essential research equipment and facilities.
  • 1998: Professors John Crowe and Lois Crowe successfully freeze-dry blood platelets for the first time, extending the shelf-life of blood transfusion supplies.


s Biological Sciences’ world-renowned research and teaching programs continue to grow in both size and stature, the division becomes an independent college at UC Davis.

  • 2000s: Cellular biologist Jodi Nunnari publishes seminal research on mitochondria as dynamic networks that undergo division and fusion events. Her discoveries revolutionize mitochondrial research and correct college textbooks’ previous description of mitochondria as static entities.
  • 2000: The program in Exercise Biology is transferred to the Division of Biological Sciences from the College of Letters and Science.
  • 2001: The Genome Center is established. The Associate Director for Bioinformatics, Professor Craig Benham, is the Acting Director until 2003 when the founding Director, Richard Michelmore, is appointed. The Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility, which houses the Genome Center, is officially dedicated on October 13, 2004.   
  • 2001: Molecular and cellular biologist Ron Baskin and colleagues release a video capturing images of an enzyme “unzipping” a strand of DNA, an important technique aimed at repairing DNA in patients with genetic illnesses.
  • 2005: July 21, the College of Biological Sciences becomes official!
  • 2008: The former sections of evolution and ecology; microbiology; molecular and cellular biology; neurobiology, physiology, and behavior; and plant biology become departments within CBS.
  • 2009: Ecologist Gail Patricelli pioneers use of the “fembot,” a robotic female sage-grouse that she sends into her Wyoming field lab to observe the species’ courting rituals and mating strategies.


Big Data and New Biology are the key phrases of our current era, as College faculty pioneer advancements in research for basic biology, and collaborate across disciplines to enable discoveries that will help solve today’s most pressing scientific questions.

  • 2010: Biotechnology pioneer Raymond Rodriguez co-founds the Global HealthShare Initiative, a project-based program dedicated to promoting health and wellness in developing countries around the world.
  • 2011: Plant biologist Simon Chan publishes a method for reproducing plants with genes from only one parent, making it possible to “breed true” without generations of inbreeding. The work promises to increase food production and help alleviate world hunger.
  • 2012: Teams from the labs of biochemists Wolf-Dietrich Heyer and Stephen Kowalczykowski become the first in the world to purify the protein of the gene BRCA2, strongly linked to breast cancer. Their work reveals how the protein plays a crucial role in DNA repair.
  • 2012: Plant Biologist Katayoon Dehesh identifies an evolutionarily conserved and essential signaling metabolite present in plants and pathogenic bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and the non-photosynthetic “apicoplast” plastids of parasites such as the malarial parasite.
  • 2013: Plant biologist Anne Britt and cellular biologist JoAnne Engebrecht collaborate through the college’s first Kingdom-Crossing grant, which funds collaborative research between experts in different life systems. Their work identifies genes shared by plants and worms that are involved in DNA metabolism.
  • 2013: The College innovates a new model for undergraduate advising by opening the Biology Academic Success Center (BASC) and instituting mandatory freshman advising. BASC’s one-stop-shop for advising and counseling services is an immediate hit with students.
  • 2013: Evolutionary geneticist Graham Coop publishes groundbreaking research establishing that all Europeans hail from the same ancestors of just 1,000 years ago.
  • 2013: Neuroscientist Kimberley McAllister publishes a breakthrough paper on how viral infection during pregnancy disrupts neural development in offspring, increasing the risk of autism.
  • 2014: The College kicks off its Freshman Cohort Program, creating community and mentorship opportunities for freshmen as soon as they arrive at UC Davis.
  • 2014: The campus opens the Coastal Marine Sciences Institute, with founding director and EVE professor Rick Grosberg at the helm.
  • 2014: Professors James Trimmer, Martin Usrey and Karen Zito lead teams that win NIH BRAIN Initiative funding to advance knowledge of the structure and function of the brain.
  • 2015: We celebrated ten years as a college and ten decades of impact.