Department of Pathology History | NYU Langone Health

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About the Department of Pathology Department of Pathology History

Department of Pathology History

NYU Langone’s Department of Pathology has been a leader in research and education for more than 150 years.

Founding Faculty at New York University Medical College and Bellevue Hospital

The Department of Pathology has its origins in two medical schools that merged to form what is now NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The older of the two was the New York University Medical College, which was founded in 1841, only 10 years after the establishment of New York University itself. A significant early contribution made by the school to medicine in general and to pathology in particular was its pioneering approach to the dissection of bodies for the study of human anatomy. Through the efforts of the faculty, the “dissection of the dead” was approved by the New York State legislature in 1854 with a law known at the time as “the Bone Bill.”

The younger of the two medical schools was established in 1861 as Bellevue Hospital Medical College, whose founding faculty were formed from the attending physicians at Bellevue Hospital, now known as NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue.

In 1878 the illustrious William Welch joined the faculty of Bellevue and in 1881 was made professor of pathologic anatomy and general pathology, the first full-time appointment of its kind in the country. Together with Edward Janeway, Welch established the first pathological laboratory, made possible by a gift from Andrew Carnegie for the purpose of studying the “causation and pathology of many diseases” and for teaching the use of the microscope. With its stated research focus, the laboratory at Bellevue became the first in the United States established for teaching and investigation in pathology in 1884.

The two medical schools merged to form one institution, which was affiliated with Bellevue under the aegis of New York University, in 1897.

Pioneering Pathology at NYU School of Medicine

After several name changes, the merged institution became the NYU School of Medicine in 1960. During the first half of the 20th century the Department of Pathology was staffed by distinguished anatomic pathologists who were formulating new classifications of disease. Just as Welch and his colleagues had laid the foundations of modern pathology in the 19th century, Lewis Thomas, who became department chair in 1954, shaped its pace-setting role for the 20th century. His extraordinary intellect and vision broadened the focus from academic morphologic pathology to experimental pathology with a strong emphasis on immunology and inflammation.

Thomas was a gifted teacher who was able to identify and recruit many talented scientists early in their careers. In a very short time, he created one of the preeminent pathology departments in the country. Thomas founded the Honors Program at the School of Medicine, which through National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding supported medical students for a full year of research after their first two years. Graduates of the Honors Program who studied in the Department of Pathology include George Todaro, who developed the 3T3 cell line and later was co-formulator of the oncogene hypothesis, and Frederick Miller, who described the pentameric structure of IgM.

Thomas also established the first basic pathobiology training program for pathology residents. The program was supported by the NIH, and residents were NIH fellows, trained as anatomic and clinical pathologists while simultaneously carrying on research. Many extraordinary faculty members were recruited by Thomas to pursue their distinguished careers at NYU School of Medicine.

Advancing Immunology

Among the most famous of them was Baruj Benacerraf, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his studies of immunogenetics. At NYU School of Medicine, Benacerraf trained many notable immunologists. These include Michael Lamm, who conducted significant studies in the field of mucosal immunity and IgA antibodies; William E. Paul, who discovered IL-4, demonstrated its function as the central regulator of allergic inflammation, and who delineated the mechanisms of Th2 cell differentiation; and Robert McCluskey, who was a pioneer in the study of the mechanisms of inflammation and use of immunofluorescence as an investigative tool in delineating the nature of glomerular diseases and as an aid in the differential diagnosis of renal disorders in the late 1960s.

While McCluskey was at University Hospital, the Bellevue laboratories were headed by Marvin Kuschner who also had received his medical degree from NYU School of Medicine and similarly trained in pathology at Bellevue. During World War II, he served as a pathologist in the War Crimes Branch of the 7th Army, taking the lead in performing autopsies of concentration camp prisoners. Kuschner was among the first researchers to study the effects of pollutants, including tobacco, on the lungs.

The Growth of Research and Training Programs

Following Thomas in 1958, Chandler Stetson maintained and enlarged the research orientation of the department. Jeanette Thorbecke joined the faculty in 1957 and worked productively on tumor immunology, autoimmunity, and T- and B-cell development. The world-renowned immunologist Zoltan Ovary, who pursued innovative research in antibodies and anaphylaxis, arrived two years later. Howard Green, who had joined NYU School of Medicine as an immunologist studying the actions of antibodies on mammalian cell membranes, changed the direction of his studies to cell biology and became a pioneer in the use of cell lines in culture with which he attempted to define the in vitro properties of malignant cells.

Green attracted many talented collaborators and postdoctoral fellows to his lab. Among the many outstanding postdoctoral fellows in Green’s laboratory was Claudio Basilico, who had come to America from Italy to study with Renato Dulbecco and subsequently joined Green. Stetson recruited Basilico to the faculty of the Department where he became a viral oncologist of international stature. Stetson also invited the “father of immunochemistry” and two-time Lasker Award winner Michael Heidelberger to be part of the Department of Pathology in 1964.

The NIH-supported pathobiology training program started by Thomas drew outstanding residents who wished to pursue careers combining both anatomic and clinical pathology and experimental pathology at NYU School of Medicine over the decades. Distinguished graduates of the school and of the pathobiology residency program include Frederick Becker, who became director of laboratories at Bellevue, and Mark Tykocinski, whose research focused on the design of novel recombinant proteins with immunotherapeutic potential and the development of antigen-presenting cell-centered immunotherapeutics.

In 1974 Stetson was succeeded by Vittorio Defendi. Defendi, who was chair until 2002, presciently pursued research on the carcinogenic properties of the human papilloma virus. Among his distinguished colleagues were Milton Finegold, who succeeded Becker as director of laboratories at Bellevue in 1979, Burton Goldberg, who studied in vitro collagen biosynthesis with cell cultures developed by Green, and Fred Gorstein, editor of Human Pathology and director of laboratories at Tisch Hospital.

Like his predecessors, Defendi recognized and actively recruited talented young faculty in areas of experimental oncology and immunology. Among these recruits was Riccardo Dalla-Favera who, as a postdoctoral fellow, had demonstrated the c-myc translocation associated with Burkitt lymphoma. At NYU School of Medicine Dalla-Favera collaborated with Dan Knowles, who had been recruited as hematopathologist. The two developed a productive relationship performing seminal molecular biologic analysis of B-cell lymphomas. In the first searches for the causes of AIDS, Gurdip Sidhu’s extraordinary diagnostic acumen and astute powers of observation using an electron microscope to study a tissue sample enabled him to recognize signs of retroviral infection in early 1981.

Avram Hershko, MD, PhD, who is co-winner of the Lasker Award in 2000 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004, became adjunct professor of pathology at NYU School of Medicine in 2002.

Maintaining a Tradition of Excellence

In keeping with the tradition established by the many exceptional and renowned pathologists at NYU School of Medicine over these years, the Department of Pathology under the leadership of Iannis Aifantis, PhD, is committed to recruiting imaginative and talented faculty members who will continue its legacy of contribution to human wellbeing in the fundamental efforts of elucidating and understanding disease mechanisms.