Faculty of BiosciencesHistory

History of Biology in Heidelberg

19th century

Heidelberg University’s biology department has produced some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ eminent researchers. It supported Darwin’s evolutionary theory from an early stage on, and has stood for the early beginnings of experimental biology, in particular for research of physiology, developmental biology and chemistry. Botanist Georg Klebs (1857 – 1918) was the founder of developmental biology of plants, and zoologist Otto Bütschli (1848 – 1920) was one of the fathers of cell biology. They, in turn, attracted other experimentally oriented researchers to Heidelberg.

Dawn of Chemical Biology in the Twenties and Decline Under National Socialism

Heidelberg was also a Mecca for biochemistry with the discovery of glycolysis and the respiratory enzyme cytochrome-c oxidase for which respectivel Meyerhof and Warburg received Nobel Prizes in 1922 and 1931. During National Socialism the further development of biology in Heidelberg was severely interrupted. This lasted well into the post-war period and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1970s that an upturn occurred.

Rise of Molecular Biology

After the war, the arrival of an electron microscope established modern cell structure research and DFG Priority Programmes in zoology and botany revived research in the field of developmental physiology. The advent of molecular biology in Heidelberg was the result of an initiative by the Physics Department and the decision by the complete Natural Sciences-Mathematics Faculty to establish a Molecular Genetics Institute in (1966). Ekkehard Bautz, who like his colleague at the time, Hermann Bujard, came from the USA, was made full professor in 1969. In 1974, Heinz Schaller was appointed to the new chair for microbiology. Both professorships were highly successful and helped molecular biology in Heidelberg gain global recognition. The enhanced reputation of the department as well as Kenneth Holmes, Hartmut Hoffmann-Berling and Theodor Wieland of the MPI for Medical Research, the rise of the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) to the status of major research institutions (1975) and obtaining the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) have all made Heidelberg one of most important European molecular biology research centres.


This all occurred contrary to the state government’s original plans, which were to make Freiburg and Constance into the main centres for molecular biology. In 1981, the then Dean Bautz succeeded in persuading the BASF AG to provide generous financial support, thus sending out a signal for molecular biology at Heidelberg University which Minister President Späth responded to by agreeing to the consruction of a new laboratory building. This allowed the rapid development of the Centre for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH), and together with Schaller's negotiations conditions were created which guarantee that the high standards of the facilities will be maintained. The ZMBH with its new research structures was a model for further biocience centres at Heidelberg University and other German universities.

Integration of Pharmaceutical Biology and Biotechnology

In order to better link pharmacological research with molecular biosciences and with medicine in Heidelberg, in 1973 the Karlsruhe Pharmacy Department was moved to Heidelberg. In 2002 the Pharmacy Faculty’s institutes (pharmaceutical, pharmaceutical technology and pharmaceutical biology) became the Institute for Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology (IMPB) in the now larger Faculty of Biosciences.


The neurosciences also experienced an upturn as a result of the integration of molecular biology. In 1976 the Institute of Neurobiology was founded, which together with the SFB (Collaborative Research Centre) 317 Molecular Neurobiology, set up in 1985, became the centre of neurobiology at Heidelberg University. In 2000 this was turned into the Interdisciplinary Centre for Neurosciences (IZN), which also incorporates clinical neurobiology and neuroanatomy.

Renaissance of Organismal Biology

In 2010 the classic disciplines zoology and botany were brought together in a new Centre for Organismal studies (COS). In the newly founded COS, organisms from different taxonomic levels – from single-celled fungi to simple animals and plants; up to mammals and man – are investigated at a systematic level, by combining molecular and organismal approaches. Thus the ZMBH and BZH initiated the first steps towards establishing a network of centres performing research on complex scientific issues in Heidelberg.  An interdisciplinary centre is planned for the Institute for Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology (IPMB). The neurobiological research groups have been organised in a comprehensive network, the IZN. The Faculty of Biosciences has thus become a "Centres Faculty", which is closely linked with biologically orientated areas of chemistry, mathematics, physics and medicine. This integrative strength of Heidelberg biosciences is currently manifested in seven DFG research collaborations and participation in major BMBF and EU programmes and in the founding of several technology transfer centres.

IPMB joins Faculty of Engineering Sciences

With the aim of pooling its expertise in the field of technology and engineering, the Faculty of Engineering Sciences was founded in 2021. Several of our faculty members will play a role in this new faculty although they will remain co-opted members.