Farewell, Zoology. Hello, Integrative Biology.

​What’s in a name? A whole lot of history, but not much zookeeping.

Back to News

Karl Scholz, dean of the College of Letters & Science, used to brag that departments in L&S spanned the alphabet from A to Z. It was a neat opener in talks to alumni and parents about the breadth and depth of an L&S education. But come this fall, the Department of Zoology will be changing its name to Integrative Biology. And Dean Scholz will have to drop his favorite line.

That’s okay, he says. It was high time for a change.

“There is historical significance in the name ‘Zoology,’ but it’s antiquated,” says Scholz. “Worse, it confuses students and parents — if inquiries we receive about careers in zoos are any measure.”

Since 2013, the department has been working on a new name, tapping campus colleagues for ideas that better signify the content, scope and emphasis of the teaching and research that happens there.

“There was uniform support that a new name was needed,” says department chair Jeff Hardin. “But there was not uniform agreement — at first — on what names would be acceptable.”

The formerly named Department of Zoology supports the cross-college Biology major, sharing oversight with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). It is also the home for undergraduate majors in Molecular Biology, Neurobiology and Zoology. While half the faculty members do study animal biology (the primary focus of the traditional field of zoology), the others focus on diverse areas such as molecular and cellular processes, evolution, neurobiology, nutrient cycling and forest fire ecology. Collaborations with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and the School of Veterinary Medicine, not to mention CALS, occur frequently.

With so much biology happening in this department — and with students looking specifically for strong programs in that field — it seemed natural that “biology” be reflected in the department’s new name. But since many units can lay claim to studying some aspect of biology, they couldn’t just call it that.

The name Integrative Biology hit the sweet spot.

“We think our collaborations across campus will be strengthened with this name, and it communicates right away, to students, what can be found here,” says Hardin.

Despite the department name change, there will be no changes to the names of the academic programs in the Department of Integrative Biology. This means there will still be an undergraduate major and a graduate program called Zoology, and the Zoology course listing will remain the same.

Coinciding with the new department name, the Lowell E. Noland Zoology Building, where most Zoology courses are taught, will now be called Lowell E. Noland Hall. The hall is named for the esteemed professor of Zoology who made significant contributions to the growing field of “protozoology,” focusing on single-celled organisms. Bringing an “infectious warmth” to the classroom, as well as a belief in the intertwining of science and the humanities, Lowell shaped teaching and learning within the department for more than 40 years.

Though bidding farewell to the old, 19th-century name, the department intends to cherish its long and storied history as the Department of Zoology. Upon the founding of the university in 1849, noted scientist Increase A. Lapham donated many samples of fossils (as well as a list of the “known vertebrates and molluscs of the state”) to assemble a zoological teaching collection. In the 1880s, Edward A. Birge was hired as Zoology instructor and “cabinet curator.”  Birge had to painstakingly rebuild that natural history collection after it was destroyed in the Science Hall fire of 1884. Many items are still housed within the Zoology Museum in Lowell E. Noland Hall.

It was Zoology professor Birge, along with his biology colleague Chancey Juday, who pioneered the study of freshwater lakes, known as limnology, here at UW-Madison. It’s now one of best-known programs in the world, thanks in large part to the long-term research that was begun by Birge and his colleagues on Lake Mendota.

UW’s medical school had a large influence on shaping the former Department of Zoology, and vice versa. In fact, Zoology’s Dr. William Snow Miller, who researched the anatomy of vertebrates’ lungs, is credited with laying the first foundation for a medical school by introducing courses in human anatomy and histology at the close of the nineteenth century.

Today, nearly 2,500 students enroll in the department’s introductory biology courses. Another 1,000 students enroll in a variety of courses in the field of biology. Researchers delve into all levels of biological organization (from the molecular level to whole ecosystems and regions) and consider a diverse range of taxa (microbes, plants, animals) and systems (terrestrial, aquatic). They also address a wide array of basic and applied research questions. Some of the research being done in Integrative Biology can shed light on diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s, birth defects, how cells repair wounds and how tissues can regenerate. Other research provides insights into mechanisms of biological evolution, invasive species, the functions of whole ecosystems and the effects of climate change.

“It’s the same department, but hopefully the new name better reflects the way biology — in all its richness — is taught and studied here at UW-Madison,” says Hardin.