In 1865, the year Vassar welcomed its first cohort of students, courses in botany and zoology were offered through the Natural History Department, taught by Sanborn Tenney, professor of natural history. According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, Tenney was an avid creationist, as was Matthew Vassar, the college’s founder, and his anti-Darwinian views helped to secure him the position. Tenney left Vassar in 1868 for a similar position at Williams College, and the man hired to take his place, James Orton, was a personal friend of Darwin’s and a staunch proponent of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Orton taught Darwin’s controversial concepts in his natural history classes at Vassar, but it wasn’t until 1925 that the college offered its first course on evolution--The Origin and Evolution of Man--through the Zoology Department.
Over the course of its history, what is now known as the Department of Biology has evolved dramatically in response to advances in the knowledge base. Today, the department offers courses in all aspects of biology, from molecular biology and genomics to ecology, biorobotics, and behavior, and from microbiology to botany and zoology. The department is also increasingly engaged in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations with the other natural science departments. The Program in Neuroscience and Behavior, for example, brings together faculty from Biology and Psychology to explore the biological basis of behavior; the Program in Biochemistry brings together Chemistry and Biology faculty to investigate the intersection of those disciplines at the cellular and molecular levels. One ongoing long-term research project, the Casperkill Assessment Project, brings together faculty and students from the departments of Chemistry, Biology, Earth Science and Geography, and Urban Studies to study the health of the Casperkill Creek and its watershed.
The department’s approach at all levels of the curriculum is inquiry-based, with an emphasis on experimental biology through field work and laboratory experiences, data analysis using statistical approaches, and library research skills. By the time they graduate, biology majors are adept at analyzing primary literature, designing and critiquing experimental approaches, and evaluating data. Vassar biology graduates may be found pursuing advanced degrees at the finest professional and graduate schools or starting careers in academia, medicine, or industry.