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Department of Pharmacology



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Our Head of Department Prof. Laura ItzhakiOur Head of Department Prof. Laura Itzhaki:

The use of medicines is one of the principal ways of combating disease. Examples of important medicines are antibacterials, anti-cancer drugs, anti-migraine agents, and drugs used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and asthma, just to name a few. The rise of pharmacology during the middle years of the 20th century saw a huge rise in the number of diseases that could be tackled effectively with drug therapy. The development of new and successful drugs requires advances and insights generated by scientific research. Pharmacology is all about “finding out how drugs work”. It is concerned with the effects of drugs on living organisms and their components such as cells, membranes, organelles, enzymes and DNA. Pharmacology affects us all, almost every day. Some more information about pharmacology is given by the British Pharmacological Society.


Our Research

The Department is well equipped with communal facilities for microscopy (including confocal microscopy), molecular biology, cell culture, centrifugation, liquid scintillation counting and computing. Members of the Department can also access many inter-departmental facilities such as the Cambridge Multi-Imaging Centre (confocal microscopy, SEM, TEM, X-ray microanalysis) and the Cambridge Centre for Molecular Recognition (peptide and oligonucleotide synthesis, etc.). The Department has its own library, which also provides access to online libraries, and this is supplemented by access to the libraries of other Departments and the University Library.


 Our Teaching

The staff of the Department provide undergraduate teaching to students in both the Natural Sciences Tripos (NST) and the Medical Sciences Tripos (MVST) and Veterinary Sciences Tripos(VetST). More than 373 undergraduates reading MVST take our Mechanisms of Drug Action (MODA) course in their second year. We are also major contributors to the interdepartmental second-year MVST course on Neurobiology. And 74 students studying NST take our second-year course in Pharmacology. We are also major contributors to the second-year NST course in Neurobiology. In the third year, our major course is Part II Pharmacology, taken by about 60 students, which is open to students with both medical and science backgrounds. This is an advanced course consisting of lectures on research at the forefront of modern pharmacological science and a research project that occupies the entire second term. We also offer a Part II BBS course, taken by about 20 students, which shares lectures with Part II Pharmacology but in which an extended dissertation replaces the experimental research project.

Supervisions (known as Tutorials in other universities) in which students meet their Supervisors weekly in groups of 2-4 students are an essential component of Cambridge teaching. Supervisions are arranged through colleges, but most staff (in their capacities as College Fellows) are also responsible for supervising students in pharmacology.


The history of the Department of Pharmacology

In 1919, Walter Ernest Dixon was appointed Reader in Pharmacology at Cambridge University. Dixon played a major role in the establishment of a Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge. The Wellcome Trust provided the financial support for the construction of a wooden building and circa 1965 the Dixon ‘hut’ was erected in the quadrangle of the Downing site. Its acquisition more than doubled the space available to the Department[1]. 

Photo courtesy of BJB - Copyright 2001, Nature Publishing Group. The Dixon ‘Hut'.

The Dixon ‘Hut' built around 1965 in the quadrangle of the Downing Site at the University of Cambridge. Now demolished and replaced with the McDonald Institute and occupied by archaeologists.


In 1971, the Department relocated from the Downing site to the Addenbrooke’s site. In 1989, the Department transferred to a new building located on Tennis Court Road.

The Sheild Professorship of Pharmacology was originally established by grace of 7 June 1946 as a personal chair for the tenure of Ernest Basil Verney. By grace of 11 March 1961 the Professorship was re-established on a permanent basis. The Professorship is named in honour of the surgeon Marmaduke Sheild.


In 1962, Arnold S V Burgen (later Sir Arnold Burgen) was appointed to the Sheild chair (later Master of Darwin College).

In 1973, Gustav Victor Rudolf Born (son of Max Born) was appointed to the 3rd Sheild Professorship of Pharmacology. 

In 1979, Alan W Cuthbert was appointed to the 4th holder of the Sheild Chair (later Master of Fitzwilliam College). 

In 1999, Peter A McNaughton was appointed to the Sheild Professorship.

[1] Alan Cuthbert, The Man Who Never Was – Walter Ernest Dixon, British Journal of Pharmacology, 2001