A Brief History

A brief walk down memory lane..

The Department of Biological Sciences evolved from the merger of two of the oldest departments in the Faculty of Science: the Department of Botany and the Department of Zoology. Botany, founded in 1949, turned 50 in 1999; and Zoology, founded in 1950.

Professor Lam Toong Jin, Head of Zoology (1981 – 1996), then Director of School of Biological Sciences (1996-1998) and finally Head of Department of Biological Sciences (1998-1999) handed the headship baton to Professor Hew Choy Leong in October 1999 and Professor Paul Matsudaira took over the headship from 2009 to 2017, after which the Department was headed by Professor Yu Hao from July 2017.

There was a School of Biological Sciences, briefly, for two years when the former Botany and Zoology first merged. The University subsequently changed the name to Department of Biological Sciences in 1998.

  • The fifties were the founding years for the two former departments. With Professor R E Holttum (1949 -1954) and Professor R D Purchon (1950 -1959) as the first Heads of Botany and Zoology respectively, the first decade was spent on the development of sound teaching programmes in Botany and Zoology. Emphasis was placed on using local flora and fauna as examples in lectures and teaching materials in laboratory classes. The courses taught were the standard fundamentals of a typical biology course i.e. comprising taxonomy, anatomy, physiology, genetics and ecology. From the early days, field study trips formed an integral part of the Botany and Zoology courses. These trips, mostly to the beaches and forests in Malaya in those days, familiarised students with the rich diversity of the tropical flora and fauna and helped them understand the interactions of plants and animals in the various ecosystems. The trips also provided opportunities for the staff and students to ‘rough it out’ together – an experience which many of our former students fondly remember to this day.

    In the foundation years, the classes for the Botany and Zoology were small. The first Botany Honours batch, for instance, had only two students. The two, Gloria Lim and Wong Hee Aik , later became Professors and Heads of the Botany Department and the Biochemistry Department (in the Faculty of Medicine) respectively. In those days, Botany and Zoology were also tasked with teaching the pre-medical, pre-dental and pre-pharmacy students.

    Research than was rudimentary and centred on the general biology of plant and animal groups. Research grant was unheard of and facilities were lacking.

  • Student intake in Botany and Zoology began to increase in the sixties. The increase was sudden at times, imposing difficulties on the two departments and staff. The departments, nevertheless, had the resilience to cope with the dramatic increases. Fortunately too, the departments were able to recruit new staff members to assist in the fast expanding teaching programmes. With these came new research interest and its subsequent expansion.

    By then, Botany had seen a second and third Head (Professor H B Gilliland, 1955-1965; with a brief stint by Mr Thompson as Acting Head before Professor Gilliland’s arrival; Professor A N Rao; Acting Head from 1965-1967; substantive Head from 1967-1985). There was also a succession of Heads in Zoology: Professor D S Johnson (1960-1962) followed by Professor J L Harrison ( 1962-1971).

    The period was also one of rapid developments in teaching and research facilities. A Fisheries Biology Unit (1962-1973) was established with Professor Tham Ah Kow as its Director. The unit offered the Diploma of Fisheries and the Certificate in Fisheries, and produced several MSc and PhD graduates. Research and training in Fisheries was also provided by the setting up of the Regional Marine Biological Centre, RMBC (1968-1978) under an agreement with UNESCO and the Singapore government.

    By the late 1960s, changes were in the air with a new thinking on the importance of providing our students with an education and training in the biological sciences, instead of Botany and Zoology. Hence in 1969, the ‘pure’ Botany and Zoology curricula were replaced by Biology A (a unit emphasizing on the organismal biology of plants and animals) and Biology B ( emphasizing on the functional and developmental biology of plants and animals). Biology B teaching also involved the departments of Anatomy, Biochemistry, Physiology, and later Microbiology, of the Medical Faculty. Students of the new biology units were thus exposed to both plant and animal biology in the first three undergraduate years. Honours and postgraduate students, however, continued to pursue their choice of either Botany or Zoology.

  • For the greater part of the seventies, Zoology was headed by Professor S H Chuang (1971-1977), with shorter stints by Dr C F Lim (1977-1978) and Mr R E Sharma (1978-1981).

    The seventies was a period of constant adjustment and consolidation in teaching. The departments of Botany and Zoology had until then, been very independent in teaching their respective programmes. With the introduction of Biology A and Biology B, the departments had to adjust to co-teaching, not only between the two departments, but also amongst the participating para-clinical departments. Some of the early difficulties were inevitably passed on to the students as in the case of those reading Biology B. Those students had to skip lunch in order to rush from the Bukit Timah campus to the Sepoy Line campus within an hour, just for a single lecture!

    Research by then, had picked up pace and was beginning to take a more focused shape. The main-stay areas such as plant taxonomy, mycology, aquatic biology (particularly fish biology) and entomology were strengthened; new areas such as plant morphogenesis, fungal genetics, fish genetics and marine biology were pursued. Research also took on a more mission-oriented approach with interest in plant tissue culture and micro-propagation, insect pest management , and aquaculture. Funds for research were still very limited and mainly squeezed from the teaching vote, while facilities were modest.

  • This was a period of major changes. The merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore brought additional staff to the two departments, and new research interest such as acupuncture ! Zoology saw a new head appointed in 1981 – Professor T J Lam. Professor A N Rao retired in 1985 and was succeeded by Professor Gloria Lim (1985-1991).

    A major event was the move of the two departments from the Bukit Timah Campus to Kent Ridge in 1981. This brought initial difficulties as the new buildings ( Blocks S1, S2 and S3) were not fully ready to take in the staff and students. Laboratory fixtures, for example, were not ready. There were frequent power failures, disruptions to the water supply, frequent movements of workers in and out of laboratories and staff offices, and the unbearable din from constant drilling and hammering works ! For several years thereafter, the plumbing system mysteriously discharged tap water that was rusty and reeked of foul oil ! One relief however, was the additional staff office space, research laboratories, and large teaching laboratories that came with the new buildings. With the new facilities and more liberal funding, research in the Department took on new heights and many more papers were published. The large teaching laboratories came in handy, as student number soared to about 250 for Biologfy A and 350 for Biology B.

    The teaching programmes saw major changes too. The para-medical departments withdrew from the teaching of Biology B in 1982. In place, Botany and Zoology beefed up Biology B with new emphases such as Developmental Biology, Animal Behaviour, Plant Biochemistry, Comparative Biochemistry, and Cell & Molecular Biology. Biology A was reviewed to include emphases on experimental plant and animal biology, and project work that involved student presentations.

    In addition to the Botany and Zoology Honours programme, a Direct Honours programme was introduced to enable bright students to complete the Honours programme in three instead of the normal four year duration. Two of the Department’s current staff members were from this programme and who had gone on to obtain their PhDs from Cambridge University (UK).

  • Professor Gloria Lim retired as Head of Botany, and was succeeded by Professor Goh Chong Jin (1991-1996).

    In order to keep pace with modern developments in the biological sciences, Biology A and Biology B were replaced in 1991 by two new units namely Integrative and Organismal Biology (IOB) and Developmental and Systems Biology (DSB). The former unit was slanted towards the Biology A theme, while the latter was more Biology B-like. In line with the advent of cell and molecular biology, a third unit in Cell & Molecular Biology (CMB), for second year undergraduates, was also introduced in the same year. This course was offered up to the Honours level, thus making it another subject of specialisation in addition to Botany and Zoology. Another new feature in the revised undergraduate programme was the reversion to offering Botany and Zoology (under Plant Biology and Animal Biology) as single subjects to second year undergraduate students.

    In 1995, the Botany and Zoology courses went ‘modular’ in line with the Faculty’s adoption of the modular academic system. The changes to the departments’ curricula were short-lived because the University and the Science Faculty soon accelerated the move to merge the two departments as one School of Biological Sciences.

    Hence after a period of unspoken apprehension, unconcealed reluctance and numerous internal deliberations within each department, plus assurances from the Dean’s Office that the departments would not ‘lose out’, the merger was finally forged. The School was officially established in 1996 with Professor T J Lam as its Director. A simple but dignified ‘unveiling’ ceremony was officiated by Vice-Chancellor Professor Lim Pin in Lecture Theatre 31. Two years later in 1998, the School was renamed Department of Biological Sciences to reflect its position as a department organic to the Faculty of Science. Professor Lam was re-designated as Head of Department, a position he held until October 1999.

  • The merger consolidated the strengths and achievements of the former Botany and Zoology departments as far as teaching and research in biological sciences is concerned.  DBS is now the single largest department offering courses in biological sciences. Its many achievements are reflected by such parameters as the number of graduate students it has, the quantum of research funding secured, the number of research publications, and lists of research breakthroughs and awards accorded to staff members. The research emphases of the Department were re-focused to maximise resources and staff’s potentials, into five main areas viz Fish Biology & Aquaculture, Plant Growth & Development, Biotechnology, Biodiversity & Ecology, and Structural Biology, Functional Genomics & Proteomics.

    The teaching programme went through an extensive revamp, partly to consolidate what was inherited from the two former departments, partly to align with the new directions of the Faculty, and partly to package the courses more attractively to students. The undergraduate degree structure leading to the B Sc with majors in either Plant Biology, Animal Biology, or Cell & Molecular Biology was replaced by a B Sc in Biology degree, and a new degree in B Appl. Sc (Biotechnology). More attention was also given to graduate courses, as the number of graduate students increased and the Graduate School’s policy on mandatory graduate course work was implemented.

    Other changes saw the re-naming of the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC) to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research to incorporate interests in plant and microbial biodiversity. A Graduate Research Congress, solely organised by the Department’s graduate students, was institutionalised in 1997 with participation by graduate students from the Asia-Pacific region. This has since become an annual regional congress. On the social side the annual staff-students sports event, the Zoolympics, was expanded and called the Biolympics.