Wing Hall

History of the Department


Cornell University is founded by Ezra Cornell.


The College of Agriculture becomes a New York State sponsored institution (predecessor of the current College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or CALS).


William A. Stocking, a dairy microbiologist and founding member of the American Society of Bacteriologists (now the American Society for Microbiology or ASM), is appointed Assistant Professor of Agricultural Bacteriology. Another early member of the department was Robert S. Breed, a founding editor of Bergey’s Manual. The department of Dairy Industry, which administered the first Bacteriology classes taught on campus, occupies Roberts Hall.


A new building, Stocking Hall, is constructed for Dairy Science.


James M. Sherman, a microbiologist studying dairy fermentations, arrives as Chairman of the Department of Dairy Science, and serves as Chair for over 30 years. In 1937, Sherman was elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists. Propionibacterium shermanii, the organism that produces carbon dioxide bubbles that form the holes in Swiss cheese, was named in his honor.


Sherman forms the Laboratory of Bacteriology, a semi-independent program whose teaching and research deals with more fundamental aspects of the properties of bacteria. The group included Otto Rahn, author of an influential textbook on bacterial physiology, and Georges A. Knaysi, a pioneer in studying microbial structure and function.


Faculty joining the “Laboratory of Bacteriology include, Brooks Naylor, Harry Seeley, Jr., Eugene Delwiche, Paul VanDemark, and I.C. Gunsalus, all Cornell PhDs. Gunsalus and coworkers elucidated the biological role of pyridoxal phosphate (vitamin B6) in 1944 but he left Cornell in 1947 after a fire destroyed his lab. VanDemark taught the introductory Micro 290 course for 40 years, winning the SUNY Chancellor's and the ASM Carski teaching awards in 1987. In 1948, Max Zelle was appointed Professor of Bacterial Genetics, the first such position in any college in the United States and was replaced in 1969 by Stanley Zahler.


Cornell University establishes the Division of Biological Sciences (DBS) in 1964 and the Laboratory of Bacteriology joins, becoming the Section of Microbiology.. New faculty joining the Section include A. Jane Gibson, who studied the physiology and biochemistry of photosynthetic microbes, and Norman Dondero, an aquatic microbiologist. Carole Rehkugler, hired as an instructor in 1967, eventually became a senior lecturer in charge of the Micro 291 laboratory course for over 20 years. She won the SUNY Chancellor's Award for teaching in 1993 and still participates in teaching the introductory lab.


The Section of Microbiology is eliminated from the DBS and faculty are reassigned. Gibson and two others go to Biochemistry, Zahler to Geterics, and the remaining faculty reform the Laboratory of Microbiology in Food Science. Ereign Seacord joins the teaching support staff, staying until 2010.


Cathy Shappell joins the staff as department administrator, ably serving in that position until 2012. In 1979 Patti Butler (Lisk) was hired as an administrative assistant and served until 2013. Shirley Cramer was hired as an administrative assistant in 1987 and is still working in the department.


Robert P. Mortlock, Chair of Microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, is recruited to serve as Chair for the newly formed Department of Microbiology. Mortlock, who studied evolution of microbial metabolism, was Chair for 10 years, and retired in 1999. Two assistant professors are also hired:

  • E. Peter Greenberg, who studies microbial behavior. In 1988 he and his wife Carrie Harwood left Cornell. They are now at University of Washington and are members of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • William C. Ghiorse, who studies microbial structure/function and metal biogeochemistry and won the 2004 SUNY Chancellor's award and the 2007 CALS Edgerton Career Award for teaching many years of Microbiology 291/BIOMI2900 among other courses. Ghiorse began phased retirement in 2010 but is still teaching in BIOMI2900.


Stephen H. Zinder is hired as an Assistant Professor. Zinder studies chemical transformations in the environment carried out by anaerobes and microbial diversity. He won the CALS Outstanding Career Accomplishments in Basic Research award in 2011.


Valley Stewart, a microbial geneticist working on anaerobic respiration, joins the faculty, leaving for UC Davis in 1998.


Stephen C. Winans joins the faculty. Winans studies the response of bacteria, particularly Agrobacterium, to environmental stimuli, and in 1994 was a coauthor, with Greenberg and Clay Fuqua, of an influential paper naming "quorum sensing".


Wing Hall
Wing Hall

The department moves to Wing Hall, recently vacated by Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology, followed by a phased renovation of Wing over the next seven years. This move allowed expansion of the department, including the addition of James Russell, a rumen microbiologist employed by the USDA and previously affiliated with the Animal Science. Dr. Russell died in 2009.

John Helmann is hired and studies effects of metals and oxidative stress on gene expression in Bacillus subtilis. He won the CALS Outstanding Career Accomplishments in Basic Research award in 2012.


Susan Merkel is hired as an instructor for the Micro 290 course, eventually becoming a Senior Lecturer succeeding Carole Rehkugler as leader of the Micro291/BIOMI2910 introductory lab and winning the CALS Innovative Teacher Award in 1997 and 2011.


The Department of Microbiology rejoins the Division of Biological Sciences and becomes the Section of Microbiology.

James P. Shapleigh, who works on denitrification and its regulation, joins the department.


Stephen Zinder becomes Department Chair during a contentious, university-wide review of the Division of Biological Sciences.

An external review committee for the Section of Microbiology makes the case that advances in genomics and molecular microbial ecology and the important roles microbiologists play at Cornell make it an opportune time to expand and strengthen the Section.


The decision is made to abolish DBS while retaining the undergraduate biology major, which includes a concentration in Microbiology. The Department of Microbiology in CALS is (re)born with a mandate for expansion, and hires three new faculty members:

  • Anthony Hay, hired in a soil ecotoxicology search, chose to reside in the Department of Microbiology and studies environmental fate of diverse organic compounds.
  • Eugene Madsen, an environmental microbiologist whose studies concentrate on naphthalene degradation as a model system. In 2008 his textbook, Environmental Microbiology: From Genomes to Biogeochemistry, was published by Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Esther Angert, who works on fish gastrointestinal tract microbiology, particularly the giant bacterium Epulopiscium and its relatives.


Joseph Peters, a microbial geneticist working on transposons, is hired in the area of microbial genomics. In 2013 he became a coauthor of the ASM Press textbook Molecular Genetics of Bacteria.


William Ghiorse becomes Department Chair for a second time.


Ruth Ley, a microbiologist studying the human microbiome, joins the department. In 2011 she won the CALS Outstanding Accomplishments in Early Achievement Award.


Ian Hewson, a marine microbiologist studying the roles of marine bacteria, archaea, and viruses in marine biogeochemistry, joins the faculty.


John Helmann succeeds William Ghiorse as Department Chair.


Lillian Henry is hired as Administrative Manager of the department after Cathy Shappell’s retirement.


Michelle Carr is hired as an administrative assistant following Patti Butler’s retirement.

The department and the Cornell Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology begin a faculty search in the area: Integrative Biology of the Bacterial Cell.