UF College of Medicine Department of Neuroscience

mcknight building in black and white

The University of Florida College of Medicine Department of Neuroscience was established in December 1970 and was one of the first departments in the country to specialize in this interdisciplinary field of medical science. Frederick A. King, Ph.D., a neuroscience pioneer, initiated the establishment of the department (originally referred to as the department of neurobiological sciences) and was its creative force. The establishment of this new department was a tribute to the vision of George T. Harrell, M.D., the founding dean of the UF College of Medicine.

As the first state-supported medical school in Florida, the UF College of Medicine was a center for innovation from its establishment in 1956. Dean Harrell planned an integrated health science center with a medical school and adjoining hospital. Harrell strongly believed that the faculty and students of the UF College of Medicine should also have robust affiliations with various other colleges on the adjacent UF campus. King pursued such affiliations, and in 1966, he and Dr. Robert Isaacson, of the department of psychology, received a training grant for the Center for Neurobiological Sciences from the National Institutes of Health. The faculty that participated in the center formed the nucleus for the new department.

King had joined the faculty of the UF College of Medicine in 1960 as research director for neurosurgery, a division of the department of surgery. When the chair of the department of anatomical sciences resigned in 1969, King accepted UF College of Medicine Dean Emanuel Suter’s offer for him to serve as acting chair. As chair of anatomical sciences, King had far-reaching goals to have the department reorganized/restructured into a neuroscience department.

Dean Suter and the executive board recognized that neuroscience was an important emerging discipline. They agreed that a neuroscience department would be great to have at UF and accepted King’s suggestion. Plans were made to dissolve the department of anatomical sciences with it evolving into the department of neuroscience. Anatomical sciences became a division of the department of pathology, but was re-established a few years later as the department of anatomy and cell biology.

Dr. King
Dr. Federick King, Founding Chair of the UF Department of Neuroscience

King was a neuroscience pioneer. On Dec. 18, 1970, he was appointed chairman of the new department and was informed that the UF Graduate School had approved its Ph.D. graduate program, thus marking the formal inauguration of the department of neuroscience. The new department was off to a strong start. The medical science board and the executive committee of the college had given full support and approval for the new department, which would become an emerging leader in the study of the brain and the nervous system.

A gifted administrator, King was able to meet the challenge of uniting faculty from a number of different disciplines. In 1971, he began hiring faculty along with some research scientists who specialized in psychiatry, psychobiology and neuroendocrinology. His experience collaborating with neuroscientists from across departmental lines helped to build bridges that supported grant funding and gained support for the growth of neuroscience research at UF. These alliances helped to support Dean Harrell’s belief that the UF College of Medicine faculty and students would benefit in many ways by working with scientists in the university’s other colleges and research centers.

Initially, there were 15 to 20 faculty members collaborating and functioning as part of the new department. Some of the founding faculty, including the chair, were from the anatomical sciences department, including King, Jerald Bernstein, Ph.D., James Horel, Ph.D. and Charles Vierck, Ph.D. Of these founding faculty, only Vierck spent his entire career in the department, retiring in 2003. Robert King, Ph.D. and John Munson, Ph.D. transferred from the department of physiology and Isaacson, whose primary appointment was in the department of psychology, was given a courtesy appointment.

Dr. Christiana Leonard, first woman to join the department in 1976.

William Luttge, Ph.D., who had received his training at the University of California at Irvine, was one of the first faculty recruited from outside UF, joining the department in 1971. He had published extensively on neuroendocrinology and the central nervous system and brought to UF his interest in laboratory design and teaching in advanced psychobiology. Luttge became the first director of graduate studies for the newly formed neuroscience Ph.D. program. Another charter member, Don Walker, Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow at Texas Christian University, joined the department faculty in 1971. Walker led a productive research group performing pioneer work on toxic effects of alcohol on the brain. Dr. Steven F. Zornetzer, who, like Luttge, received his Ph.D. at the University of California at Irvine, also came to the department in 1971 to continue work on learning and memory. William E. Brownell, Ph.D., an auditory neurophysiologist, Adrian Dunn, Ph.D., an expert on neurochemistry, and Floyd Thompson, Ph.D., a motor physiologist, joined the department soon after. Marieta Heaton, Ph.D., a neuroembryologist, was recruited in 1975 and was the first female faculty member in the department. King’s final recruit was another female research scientist, Christiana Leonard, Ph.D., a neuroanatomist, who joined in 1976. All faculty members were attracted by the fact that it was at that time one of the first neuroscience departments in the country. In the 1980s, the exceptional reputation of the department attracted more outstanding young faculty. Paul Reier, Ph.D., was recruited in 1984 into an endowed chair position to form a group pursuing spinal cord regeneration. Barbara Battelle, Ph.D., was recruited in 1985 for a joint position with the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience. Other faculty who joined the department in the 1980s were Louis Ritz, Ph.D., who focused his career on leading the program for teaching medical students, Gerry P. J. Shaw, Ph.D., who developed an antibody for neurofilaments, and W. Jake Streit, Ph.D., an expert on microglia.

Dr. Chuck Vierck, first Director of medical neuroscience course at University of Florida.

At the time the neuroscience department was formed, the basic science departments in the UF College of Medicine were making a transition from the classical mode of departmental teaching to following the organ systems method pioneered by Western Reserve Medical School. Neuroscience was ideally suited to organ systems teaching, and the divisions of neurology and neurosurgery participated enthusiastically in the new course, “medical neuroscience.”  As neuroscience knowledge was increasing exponentially, the faculty incorporated clinical material into the course so that medical students would gain a strong understanding of the anatomical and physiological foundation for the clinical phenomena they saw on their rounds with attending physicians. In the 1970s, computers and electronic versions of journals were not yet part of the medical student experience and as there were no satisfactory neuroscience textbooks, the faculty created their own teaching material, publishing it locally in a new edition every year.  Dr. Chuck Vierck, who was in charge of the course in its early years, recalls the challenge to the small but dedicated faculty of constantly having to learn new material to pass on to students in daily lab sessions and lectures as they explored all aspects of basic neuroscience as well as clinical diagnosis. The entire faculty and all the graduate students participated in teaching, frequently staying in the teaching labs in one-on-one teaching sessions until the wee hours of the morning, only to return for 8 a.m. lectures. The experience of teaching this exciting new course was somewhat akin to an initiation ceremony and led to tight bonding among the faculty, stimulating research collaborations. The medical neuroscience course became one of the most popular courses in the medical school, winning many awards. Through the 1980s and ’90s, the neuroscience department was the only department to maintain the organ systems approach to teaching. Many faculty felt that the unique format of the course was essential preparation for the neuroscience graduate students. Participating in the course also became optional for faculty when the teaching responsibilities of the department broadened to include the education of students in other colleges in the medical center.

Dr. Lou Ritz, received Ph.D. from UF Dept. of Neuroscience in 1980 and became a faculty member in 1985. Dr. Ritz served as course director of Medical Neuroscience from 2001-2018.

In addition to teaching neuroscience and its related clinical aspects to medical students, the department was also responsible for preparing graduate students for their future as research scientists.  Records of the Neuroscience Ph.D. Graduate Program, which was approved in 1970, indicate that the first graduate was Anthony J. Castro that same year. John B. Gelderd graduated in 1971, and William B. Gould graduated in 1975. The first class of graduate students was admitted, or transferred from other programs into the Neuroscience Ph.D. Graduate Program, in the fall of 1972. Several of these students completed their Ph.D. and graduated in 1976, including Ronald H. Baisden, Carl A. Boast, Nicholas R.S. Hall, Michael Iuvone, David C. Kuo, Cleatus J. Wallis, and Michelle Simon. Records were sparsely maintained during the earlier years, therefore we are unable to accurately account for the total number of graduates from this program.  Dr. Louis A. Ritz entered the program in 1974 and obtained his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1980. Ritz has been a faculty member in the department since 1985, serving as a member of the cadre of medical educators. From 2001-2018, Ritz served as course director for medical neuroscience, which is considered to be the most integrative course in the basic science years of the medical curriculum.

In 1999, the Neuroscience Ph.D. Graduate Program transitioned to become a part of the Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences, or IDP, in the College of Medicine. In May 2016, the Department of Neuroscience had an enrollment of 39 students in its graduate program. The average time in the program until graduation has been five years, with students completing the program with an average of 2.4 first-author publications and an average of 5.37 total publications resulting from the degree. The program has been an outstanding success.  Records indicate that 59% of graduates enter a career in academia, 28% in industry (including medical practice and medical or pharmaceutical sales), and 13% in various other fields of work.

Doctor luttge
Dr. William *Bill” Luttge, Department Chair (1983-1993) and founder of the McKnight Brain Institute.

In 1978, King accepted the position of director of the Yerkes Institute in Atlanta, leaving his associate chair, Luttge, to step in as interim chair of the neuroscience department. Luttge served admirably in this capacity through two failed chair searches until 1983, when he was appointed department chair. His passion for the field played a critical role in shaping the future of neuroscience at UF.

The department of neuroscience gained prominence in the College of Medicine when a “Brain Institute” task force was formed in 1988.  The leaders of the UF College of Medicine and Shands Hospital recognized the growing importance of the brain sciences as their top development initiative. Luttge took charge of this campus-wide initiative to harness UF’s research, clinical and educational efforts to confront brain disorders, which in 1991 led to the creation of the UF Brain Institute with Luttge appointed as director. At the time, 144 faculty from eight colleges were identified as part of the UFBI. Interdisciplinary research between the basic and clinical scientists was stimulated, and the work done in the labs of those associated with the institute would serve the health needs of potential patients well into the future.

Plans were made to construct a research and education facility for the brain institute. Crucial funding was obtained when Luttge came across an item in an obscure newsletter, Commerce Business Daily, announcing a call for proposals for a competitive Department of Defense (DoD) grant to build a major national brain and spinal cord research center. The military wished to spur research into the treatment of head and spine trauma and other neurological injuries suffered by soldiers on the battlefield. In December 1991, Luttge submitted a proposal to the DoD for an $18 million federal grant which was contingent upon UF coming up with $36 million in matching funds. Luttge’s grant submission was accepted, and in June 1992, the DoD awarded $18 million to UF to build a major brain institute. This successful grant application was a feat university officials said was pivotal to plans to develop a world-class neuroscience research center at UF and formed the base for the next round of fundraising. Then-UF President Dr. John Lombardi stated, “This accomplishment truly ranks among the great coups of all time for the University of Florida.” An additional $20 million was donated in 1996 and 1997 by the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to help complete construction of the institute building. Private gifts soon followed. On Oct. 22, 1998, UF officially opened the doors to its world-class, $60 million UF Brain Institute building with Luttge as the founding director.

In 2000, the UF Brain Institute was renamed the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida (MBI) to commemorate a $15 million gift from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation. This award was the largest cash gift in UF history and it was matched by the state of Florida to help create over a $30 million permanent endowment devoted to fundamental research on the mechanisms underlying the formation, storage and retrieval of memories; the impairments in these processes associated with aging; and the development of therapeutic strategies for the prevention and/or alleviation of these impairments in humans. The UF McKnight Brain Institute is one of the nation’s most comprehensive and technologically advanced centers devoted to discovering how the normal brain operates and how it can be repaired following injury, disease or aging.

UF College of Medicine faculty continued to collaborate with those at the adjacent Malcom Randall VA Medical Center, where a significant number held dual appointments—an arrangement that became a model for partnerships between medical schools and VA hospitals throughout the country.  Luttge, who served as chair from 1983 to 1996, strongly encouraged the collaborative approach to building the department. “Neuroscience has always been an interdisciplinary field, so why not fully expand it,” he said.

Doug Anderson
Douglas K. Anderson, Ph.D.

As part of the brain institute initiative, Douglas K. Anderson, Ph.D., was recruited in 1993 to be the C.M. and K.E. Overstreet Professor and Eminent Scholar in Spinal Cord Regeneration in the departments of neuroscience and neurosurgery. In 1996, Anderson was named chair of the department of neuroscience. The department was then an established department with excellent faculty members who overall were well funded and either already well known or in the process of developing nationally or internationally recognized research programs. Anderson’s vision was to provide an environment that would allow the department to reach the next level in research accomplishments, funding and teaching. In the 10 years Anderson served as chair, he presided over a period of solid growth in the department, with the addition of 10 new faculty members. The focus of the department shifted from one with primarily a behavioral systems orientation to one with an emphasis on translational molecular/cell biology approaches. There was a steady increase in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources. Based on 2002 and 2003 data from the AAMC, the Department of Neuroscience was ranked 8th and 11th, respectively, in NIH funding out of 24 listed departments of neuroscience. From 1999 to 2004, Anderson also served as director of research and development for the MBI and, until 2006, as a senior research career scientist at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. In 2004, upon Luttge’s retirement as director of the MBI, Anderson was appointed as interim executive director.

Many of the faculty members who joined the department brought funding from the NIH, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Heart Association and other foundations to support their research and that of the graduate students working with them. Private donors have also played a role in the funding of research. In the 2015, according to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research rankings, the UF Department of Neuroscience ranked No. 10 among all departments of neuroscience in the nation’s medical schools with $9M in NIH funding. In 2017, the departmental NIH grant portfolio increased to nearly $13M, which again yielded ranking as No. 10 among all U.S. medical schools, and No. 3 among public schools.

The department has a strong history of performing extraordinarily well in its educational mission. All of the neuroscience-based educational offerings for medical and graduate students have received “very good” to “excellent” ratings from the students. Under the excellent guidance of Ritz, the department’s flagship course, medical neuroscience, became inarguably the most popular basic science course offered to the medical students. This was confirmed when the department received the Golden Apple Award in 2007 and again in 2008 for outstanding basic science teaching by the UF College of Medicine graduating class. Further evidence of the high quality and impact of the course has been the consistently exceptional performance by first-year medical students on the neuroscience subject exam. During this period, the excellence of the neuroscience concentration of the UF College of Medicine Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences resulted in neuroscience becoming the largest and most sought after of the IDP concentrations.

doctor notterpek
Dr. Lucia Notterpek, first woman Chair of the Department of Neuroscience (2010-2020).

In 2006, Anderson retired as professor emeritus, eminent scholar and chair emeritus of the department. Harry Nick, Ph.D., and David Borchelt, Ph.D., each served as interim chair for a few years until January 2009, when Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., was appointed as the fourth chair of the department.  Notterpek, who had joined the department in 1999, obtained her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1994 from the University of California, Los Angeles, followed by a five-year postdoctoral fellowship under the mentorship of Eric Shooter, Ph.D., at Stanford University.

The neuroscience department faculty members have remained engaged in a wide variety of teaching and research activities. Faculty are well-funded with active research programs that involve a growing number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.  Department faculty continue to teach medical students and to develop more sophisticated teaching materials as the field of neuroscience advances. Teaching materials were replaced in 2004 with the publication of a new textbook published by Elsevier Press, Medical Neuroscience, that was developed at the UF College of Medicine and written by Stephen E. Nadeau, M.D., Tanya S. Ferguson, Ph.D., Edward Valenstein, M.D., Charles J. Vierck, Ph.D., Jeffrey C. Petruska, Ph.D., Wolfgang J. Streit, Ph.D. and Ritz. The MBI has become the “center of centers” for the study of many different approaches to neurological research. Members of the department continue to collaborate with teams of clinicians and basic scientists working together to translate laboratory discoveries into therapies that help patients.

At the time of this writing in 2017, there were 23 tenured/tenure track faculty members and 11 mission track faculty members in the University of Florida department of neuroscience.

The writing of this history was the cumulative work of: Ms. Laurie Murray; Drs. Douglas Anderson, Tiana Leonard; Marieta Heaton, Louis Ritz, Michael Iuvone, Ms. Michelle Jaffee, Ms. Kathy Stalnaker and Lucia Notterpek.