The history of the Department of Neuroscience

The Department of Neuroscience is one of five departments in Biomedicum, Karolinska Institutet's ultramodern laboratory building for experimental biomedical research and world class science.

In 1993, a reorganisation of Karolinska Institutet was implemented, which involved reducing 150 departments to 30. The idea was for each of the new departments to have greater independence and not be too dependent on the Professional Services (formerly known as Central Administration), and to have more freedom to take new initiatives.

A new department

The Department of Neuroscience, consisting of some of the existing neuroscience groups, was formed on 1 July 1993, Neuroscience being a natural choice as a thematic entity.

The groups joining the new Department of Neuroscience were:

  • Anatomy with professors Gunnar Grant and Lars-Gösta Elfvin
  • Histology and Neurobiology with Kjell Fuxe, Tomas Hökfelt and Lars Olson
  • Neurophysiology with Sten Grillner and Per Roland
  • Krister Kristensson also joined from the Pathology Department in Huddinge

In addition to the professors, the department consisted of seven university lecturers and 13 non-tenured assistant professors (forskarassistenter), thus altogether a substantial scientific staff.

Initially the department was located in three different buildings, which complicated interactions. In 1995, however, Neurophysiology moved into the Berzelius-building, and finally, in 2001, all groups could relocate to the newly built Retzius laboratory, with facilities designed to fit the needs of the different research groups of the department.

Some historical facts

Anatomy has the longest history of all preclinical departments at Karolinska Institutet. Roland Martin was Stockholm's first Professor of Anatomy at Collegium Medicum (the National Board of Health and Welfare of its day), appointed in 1756, before KI was founded in 1810.

Teaching, which used to take place at Riddarholmen, in the old city, relocated to the new site at Kungsholmen in 1816.

Anders Johan Hagströmer, is appointed KI's first inspector, a post equivalent to today's President. He is a professor of anatomy and surgery, with a background from the collegium Medicum. At his death in 1830, Anders Retzius* succeeded him, both as Professor and Inspector.

In 1947, KI moved to its current location in Solna, Ture Petrén being Chair at the time.

Fritiof Sjöstrand, a pioneer in electron microscopy, was another important scientist at the department in the 1950s.

In 1878, Gustav Retzius*, son of Anders Retzius, received a personal Professorship in Histology, the first chair in this subject in Sweden, which also lead to the start of an independent Histology Department. He was succeeded by Emil Holmgren.

In 1962, Nils-Åke Hillarp was appointed Professor in Histology, introducing the famous Falck-Hillarp technique for visualization of monoamines.

One may also mention Lars Gyllensten as one of the later professors in Histology. He retired from his academic position however, to become a writer as well as a member and permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

In the early 1940s, the Finnish neurophysiologist Ragnar Granit was recruited to Karolinska Institutet. He rapidly established a new research-intensive laboratory, training many neuroscientists, and in 1946 he received a personal research chair in Neurophysiology. His laboratory became part of the Medical Nobel Institute, moving to the new campus of Karolinska Institutet in 1948. Professors Curt von Euler and Bernhard Frankenhaeuser, both part of the Nobel Institute for Neurophysiology, played important roles, largely contributing to the scientific and social atmosphere at the department.

Ragnar Granit was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967 for his contributions to the analysis of retinal function and how optical nerve cells respond to light stimuli, colour and frequency.

Sten Grillner was appointed head of the Department of Neuroscience in 1986.

Head of department over the years

There is an ongoing debate about the legacy of Anders Retzius and Gustaf Retzius and Karolinska Institutet bears responsibility for what is left to future generations.