The Department of Neuroscience began in the late 1800s as the Department of Anatomy, one of the first departments at the School of Medicine. The emergence of neuroscience as a discipline in the middle part of the twentieth century brought an evolution to the department. In 1975, under the leadership of W. Maxwell Cowan, MD, PhD, the department was renamed the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, reflecting its reach into the neural sciences. 

Then, under the direction of Gerald Fischbach, MD, and later, David Van Essen, PhD, the department further expanded its focus in the neurosciences, paralleling a broad interest in the discipline across Washington University and other top universities throughout the country.

In 2015, the department was renamed the Department of Neuroscience to more accurately reflect this focus.

Department heads

Robert J. Terry, MD (1871-1966). Photo: Bernard Becker Medical Library

Currently led by department head, Linda Richards, PhD, previous heads of the department have included:

  • Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, elected to the National Academy of Medicine
  • David Van Essen, PhD, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and Principal Investigator of the Human Connectome Project
  • Gerald D. Fischbach, MD, who later became director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  • W. Maxwell Cowan, MD, DPhil, who later became vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  • Edward W. Dempsey, PhD, who went on to serve as dean of the School of Medicine
  • Robert J. Terry, MD, founding head
Three department chairs have served as President of the Society for Neuroscience:

W. Maxwell Cowan, MD, DPhil, 1977 – 1978

Gerald D. Fischbach, MD, 1983 – 1984

David Van Essen, PhD, 2006 – 2007

Outstanding women in anatomy and neuroscience

In 1946, Mildred Trotter became the first full professor at Washington University School of Medicine. Over the decades, she has been joined by numerous other accomplished women scientists who have made fundamental contributions to anatomy and neuroscience-related fields. Their stories illuminate the rich history of WashU’s neuroscience research and the trailblazing efforts of women to create a more inclusive science community.

These brief biographies were assembled by Karen O’Malley, PhD, with significant help from Mabel Purkerson, MD, WUSM physician and archivist, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary in 2001 of the Academic Women’s Network.