Skip to main content

Biology Program History

Undergraduate collegiate education at Iowa State University (then, the "Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm") on March 20th 1869.  During the summer of that year, the very first biological science course, a botany course, was taught by Dr. Norton S. Townshend.  Shortly after in February of 1870, Charles E. Bessey (pictured here) arrived on campus and began to revolutionize biological education by introducing laboratory components into undergraduate botany classes for the first time in North America.  The home of the current Biology Program, Bessey Hall, is named after him. 

Charles E. Bessey, whose namesake adorns Bessey Hall, home of the Biology ProgramThe first undergraduates received their Bachelors degrees in botany in 1872, and both the first Masters degree (1877) and the first Ph.D. degree (1916) were awarded to botanists.  Educational opportunities in biological science over the next 100 years were the responsibility of the Department of Botany and the Department of Zoology, each of which offered majors in their respective discipline and many courses taken by students across campus.  In 1969, the Department of Botany and the Department of Zoology collaborated to develop the first interdepartmental biology major.  There, students interested in basic biological science could major in botany, zoology, or biology, as well as life-science related majors offered by other departments. 

In 2002 as part of the reorganization that resulted in the establishment of the current Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology Department (EEOB) and the Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology Department (GDCB), the botany and zoology majors were discontinued, with biology becoming the largest interdepartmental major offered jointly by EEOB and GDCB.  The commitment to undergraduate education initiated by Dr. Bessey continues in the current Biology Program.  Faculty in both EEOB and GDCB teach a wide range of courses focusing on various aspects of biology, as well as provide undergraduate research and field trip opportunities. 

In 1995 the Biology Program helped lead the development of the highly successful Learning Communities effort on campus.  The Biology Program faculty have developed a curriculum that provides students both breadth across the diverse discipline of biology, as well as allowing the flexibility to pursue a wide range of academic interests and career goals.  Nearly 150 years after the first undergraduate biological science courses were offered at Iowa State University, the Biology Program continues innovate, engage, and support students in learning about the biological world that surrounds all of us.