Roanoke College

Biology Department History


The study of the natural sciences has always been an important part of the Roanoke College curriculum. In the nineteenth century, the natural sciences included chemistry, mineralogy, botany, zoology, geology, physiology and anatomy. Rarely was the term "biology" used. Botany has been offered from the very beginning of the college's existence, although it was an optional course taken during the junior year. Moses Greenwood and Orlander Childs Rucker, Class of 1882, were the first to receive the B. S. degree. At this time, the Roanoke curriculum was more "classically" oriented than it is now (including heavy doses of Greek and Latin) but B. S. candidates were allowed to substitute some French and German for the classical languages and took more mathematics than their non-science classmates. Botany and zoology were required. By 1882-83, the college had established a modest science teaching laboratory.

The primary figure in the natural sciences at Roanoke during the nineteenth century was Simon Carson Wells, who taught here from 1849 (when the college was called Virginia Collegiate Institute) until his death in 1900. Wells was described as a talented man with a genius for the natural sciences. One colleague suggested that he could have attained a national research reputation had he not decided to devote so much of his time to the classroom.

Nineteenth century students also took courses in Anatomy and Physiology or, later, Physiology and Hygiene. Generally these courses were taught by one of the college physicians, J. J. Moorman, Henry V. Gray, or Arthur Z. Koiner. This period was a time of experimentation in course offerings. In 1868-69, the college offered a course in Anatomy and Physiology, including lectures and discussion sessions at $10 per term. There was also a "Special Medical Department," which for $30, provided lectures and gave students access to cadavers, skeletons, mannequins and other materials in a laboratory setting. "Regular dissections [would be] carried on from December to March" -- propitious scheduling, given the lack of refrigeration in the 19th century!

Even though the college stopped offering B. S. degrees in 1893, Biology at Roanoke continued to flourish, particularly following the addition of the third floor to the Administration Building in 1903, which then became the new home for the sciences. The first professor of "Biology and Geology" was Willis E. Maneval who taught here from 1907 until 1910. In 1907-08, two semesters of Biology became a requirement for sophomores, with an elective offering in advanced biology for juniors. A biology teaching laboratory became operational that year, boasting a variety of biological materials, microscopes and other apparatus, running water, and some facility to maintain live plants and animals.

Since only the Bachelor of Arts was offered at this time, students could choose a more scientifically oriented course of study, and by 1909-10 a young man (women weren't admitted until 1930) could choose the "Chemistry and Biology Group" course of study. In 1919-20 the B. S. degree was reintroduced requiring less English and Latin than the B. A. and 16 hours more of mathematics and science. By 1920-21 the Biology Department offered seven courses, including several pre-med courses. Its "thoroughly modern" facilities included one large general teaching laboratory, two smaller labs for advanced work, and a large lecture room. Biology was first offered as a major in 1927-28 and required 18 hours of Biology as well as 10 hours each in Chemistry and Physics. Most laboratory courses involved 3 hours of recitation (lecture and/or discussion) and 4 hours of laboratory.

If Simon Carson Wells dominated the natural sciences at Roanoke in the 19th century, George Gose Peery was his twentieth century counterpart. Upon graduating from Roanoke in 1905, Peery was hired as a Mathematics Instructor and Physical Director. After doing graduate work at Johns Hopkins (1910-1912) he returned to Roanoke to teach Biology from 1912 until 1959. While Peery had opportunities to do research, offers from larger colleges and universities, and chances to enter college administration (he was acting president of Roanoke from 1918 to 1920), his heart always drew him back to the Roanoke College classroom where he felt he could make his strongest contribution.

Biology was not confined to study and research in the classroom and the laboratory. The precursor of the current Tri-Beta Biological Society was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek group formed during the late 'teens and identified in the college yearbook as "The Roentgen Rays." Its official name varied: The Order of Prospective Surgeons (1917), General Science Club (1918) and The Pre-Medical Club (1919). Accompanying photos showed members dressed in physician's whites armed with rather deadly versions of "tools of the trade" standing around their patient--or victim! Club colors were "blood red and white." Mottoes included "Liberty or death" and "To hold the eel of science by the tail." And club flowers varied from a wreath to a lily!

It wasn't until the 1930s that the Biology Department began to expand its faculty, adding two assistants in 1932 and holding at three until the mid 1960s when the numbers increased to four and then six. Harry Lee Holloway, Jr., joined the Biology faculty in 1953 and became department chair upon Peery's retirement. Holloway attained a national reputation as a scientist. He was widely published and pursued projects not only in Virginia but in Antarctica as well.

When the Chemistry Department moved to Lucas Hall in 1940, the Biology Department expanded to fill the entire third floor of the Administration Building. But with enrollment increases in the 1960s, it soon became obvious that the science facilities were overburdened and plans were initiated to build a new science complex. In January 1971, the Biology Department moved into its present facility in the Life Science Building, occupying most of its second, third, and fourth floors.

Within the last few years, the Science Division at Roanoke has been successful obtaining funds for facilities improvement and to purchase new equipment. A $1.5 million grant from the Kresge Foundation has made possible the purchase of several pieces of modern equipment by the Biology Department, including a state-of-the-art liquid scintillation counter, several pieces of equipment for our molecular biology laboratory, and sophisticated video taping and analysis systems. A portion of the Kresge grant has been set aside as an endowment to provide for the purchase of new equipment on a continuing basis. In the summer of 1993, the Science Division received a $250,000 grant (matched by Roanoke College for a total of $500,000) from the National Science Foundation expressly for the purpose of revitalizing research space in the science buildings.

Over the last several years, the department has received substantial support from the McFeeley-Rogers Foundation in Pennsylvania. This support has allowed us, among other things, to upgrade our teaching microscopes, establish a state-of-the-art digital image acquisition and analysis facility and substantially upgrade our collection of teaching equipment to support the molecular and cellular biology portions of our curriculum.

The success of initiatives like these has made it possible for Roanoke science students to have access to modern, sophisticated equipment and facilities so they may be better prepared for whatever career path they choose beyond Roanoke.