The History of the Division of Biostatistics (1966 – present)

The Division of Biostatistics was established in 1966 within the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health to meet a variety of needs and to afford expanded opportunities and identity for biostatisticians within the setting of the Washington University School of Medicine.

The Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, under the Chairmanship of the late Dr. Robert E. Shank, sought to establish a new Division to support the ever-growing need for assistance for faculty and students in the design of experiments, analyses of data, and the application of more advanced biostatistical methodologies needed to secure grants from the National Institutes of Health. With the assistance of Dean M. Kenton King and several funding agencies, the Division was created and housed in Old Shriner’s Children’s Hospital building at 706 S. Euclid Avenue . An arm of the Division was established in Barnard Hospital in the center of the Barnes complex to facilitate greater interaction with the Siteman Cancer Center and other Medical School collaborations.

The late Dr. Reimut Wette served as the founding Director of the Division from 1966 until 1979. He came from the University of Texas at Houston where he was Associate Biomathematician and Chief of the Section of Mathematical Biology. He also served as a biometrician at the MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston . The new Division of Biostatistics consisted of Dr. Wette, Mrs. Barbara Hixon, an instructor, a secretary, a student programmer and a key punch operator. Dr. Sung Choi was added to the faculty shortly after the Division was established.

As the first Director of the newly formed Division of Biostatistics, Dr. Wette was charged with the task of developing a niche within the medical school community. Knowledge of biostatistics became increasingly important in the various departments as Washington University gained a strong reputation as a research-oriented institution. Much of the federal funding for research from that time forward required a biostatistical component within each project. Dr. Wette also increased the Division’s ability to contribute to the medical community at large by recruiting computer savvy faculty and staff. After providing stable leadership for more than a decade, he stepped down as Director in 1979. He remained an active and productive member of the faculty until 1990, when be became Professor Emeritus. On the occasion of his retirement, the Division’s library was dedicated in his honor as the Wette Library of Biostatistics.

In 1980, Dr. D.C. Rao was recruited as Director of the Division. His previous experience included eight years working in population genetics and genetic epidemiology with the world-renowned geneticist, Dr. Newton E. Morton, at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu .

Charged with the responsibility of developing a strong academic program, Rao emphasized development of in-house research programs during his early tenure. Growth of the Division in the two major areas of clinical trials and data management, and genetic epidemiology was vigorously pursued through selective faculty recruitments and NIH funding. These goals were facilitated by the cooperation and support extended by the senior faculty members, J. Philip Miller and Reimut Wette. With his own academic experience in the field, Rao helped to establish the Division as a center of excellence in genetic epidemiology. Research in this area includes development of new methods for analyzing data and modeling possible outcomes, as well as the applications of these and other methods to studies of complex disorders such as coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and psychiatric diseases.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, researchers in the Division were able to secure increasing amounts of direct funding for their projects. Some faculty formed strong alliances with departments that required a biostatistical core for their research. Biostatistical cores have become an integral part of research projects on AIDS, Duchene’s Muscular Dystrophy, Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorders, and geriatrics. Several large-scale NIH grants have been awarded to the Division faculty for coordinating multicenter studies. The impressive growth in the 1980’s through 2000’s was possible only with the exceptional support the Division received from the administration, particularly from the late Drs. Robert E. Shank and Samuel B. Guze, as well as from Deans of the medical school, Drs. William A. Peck and Larry Shapiro.

When the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health was dissolved in 1987, the Division was given independent status as a teaching and research division within the School of Medicine . Growth has continued, with increased funding and staff. In 1966, when the year the Division was founded, it employed seven people. By the time of the Division’s Golden Jubilee in 2016, the Division had grown to over 30 employees, some with joint appointments in other departments within the University, and all allied to form an internationally renowned center for research in biostatistics and genetic epidemiology. In 2017, the Division moved from its location at 706 S. Euclid Avenue to the 5th floor of the Becker Medical Library and the 2nd floor of Barnard Hospital.