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John Scott Burdon-Sanderson (1828-1905) First Waynflete Professor of Physiology
John Scott Burdon-Sanderson (1828-1905) First Waynflete Professor of Physiology

Medicine has been taught at the University of Oxford for at least eight centuries, producing a succession of famous figures and landmarks in research and learning.

There was a golden period in the second half of the seventeenth century, when Harvey, Boyle, Willis, Highmore and Petty influenced physiology and anatomy profoundly, and contributed to the newly-formed Royal Society. Modern physiology at Oxford however has its starting point in the foundation of the University Museum in 1860. Physiology as a separate Department was opened in 1883, under the direction of the first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, J. Burdon Sanderson. His name is now commemorated by the newly-established Burdon Sanderson Cardiac Sciences Centre. One of his major interests was electrophysiological research. Electrophysiology has remained a major theme of departmental research, culminating in the era of Sherrington and Eccles, both Nobel prize winners, who transformed modern neurophysiology. Neuroscience has continued as one of the major strengths in Physiology, with David Whitteridge, Colin Blakemore and now Gero Miesenboeck as the most recent holders of the Waynflete Chair in Physiology. Aside from neuroscience, JS Haldane joined the department in 1887 and started the strong tradition of research into metabolic and respiratory physiology in the Department, while cellular and molecular physiology represent more recent strong developments.

The Department of Human Anatomy was established as a separate entity in 1893, but the study of Anatomy in Oxford can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Oxford has had a succession of renowned anatomists (see above), and a notable early scientific collaboration between William Harvey and Nathaniel Highmore was on the embryonic development of the chick. More recent Dr Lee’s Professors of Anatomy include Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clark, Geoffrey Harris, Charles Phillips and Ray Guillery who established the strong research interests of the Department in the Central Nervous System and in Endocrinology, which still feature prominently today. For more on the history of anatomy and physiology at Oxford, including videos of the History of Medical Sciences seminar series, virtual microscopy of slides from the 19th century onwards, and hundreds of fascinating letters from the Sherrington collection, visit the History of Medical Sciences website. 

Over the past two decades, the Department built up a strong reputation in Developmental Biology. The appointment of Professor Kay Davies as Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy later established significant expertise in Functional Genetics. The Henry Wellcome Building of Gene Function was opened in 2003 and was a joint addition to both Anatomy and Physiology. In 2011, the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour was opened in the Tinsley Building.

In January 2006, the Medical Sciences Division merged the Department of Human Anatomy and Genetics and the University Laboratory of Physiology to create the single Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics. Professor Sir George Radda became the department's first head, succeeded in 2008 by Professor Dame Kay Davies. The merger enabled the new Department to consolidate the research activities of the two former departments and created opportunities for new research alignments. The research programmes are multidisciplinary and range from studies of the single gene to the function of the whole organism. The current Head of Department, appointed in October 2011, is Professor Peter Robbins.