HistoryThe origin of the Medical College of Virginia dates back to 1838 when it began as the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, an esteemed private liberal arts college for men established in 1775 near Farmville, Va. Nearly 70 years later, the medical department of H-SC received an independent charter from the Virginia General Assembly and became the Medical College of Virginia (MCV). In 1968 the Virginia General Assembly created Virginia Commonwealth University with the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute.

The Department of Biostatistics originated in 1958 as the Division of Biometry within the Department of Biophysics and Biometry in the autonomous MCV. The Division of Biometry was headed by Malcolm Turner, Ph.D. At that time, biometry was defined as the study and application of mathematical and statistical research to biological subjects, and Turner considered himself to be a biometrician rather than a biostatistician.

Branching off

In 1963 Turner left MCV, and the Division of Biometry split off from the Department of Biophysics and Biometry to become an independent Department of Biometry within MCV. After an international search, the college recruited S. James Kilpatrick Jr., Ph.D., to head the Department of Biometry in 1965. The primary charge given to the chair was to provide statistical and computing assistance to investigators throughout MCV in order to facilitate research. Other objectives of the new department included provision of courses and lectures in statistics within the several professional schools, pursuit of research and provision of a graduate training program in biometry.

In order to accomplish these goals, the Scientific Computation Laboratory became part of the department in 1965. In addition to the chair, the department consisted of one master’s-level faculty member, Eleanor Campbell, and two computer assistants, Rhoda Maddox and Voncile Hutto, who ran the RPC 4000 Royal McBee computer. This primitive computer had a 4K hard drive and paper tape entry. A suite of simple biostatistics programs had been written for the computer in FORTRAN by the staff. At that time, this was the only computer devoted to research on the MCV Campus. NIH grants sustained the Scientific Computation Laboratory, and an IBM 1130 with a 32K hard drive and card entry was purchased to replace the RPC 4000. At this time, the statistical analysis system was introduced and implemented on this computer.

High Performance Computing

Shumei Sun, Ph.D. received two grants from the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA 2009) which were used to defray the costs of Beowolf clusters. The Beowulf clusters allow for high performance computing. One of our Beowulf clusters was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK) with ARRA funds and the other Beowulf cluster was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), also with ARRA funding. The NICHD ARRA award also supported a system analyst to implement and maintain the Beowulf clusters.

The cluster system has continued to grow to its current state and is configured to ensure that multiple job types run efficiently. The cluster supports department faculty, research staff, and students working on intensive computation in both serial and parallel processing for our teaching, research and administrative missions.

Faculty growth

The department expanded in the late 1960s with the recruitment of Roger Flora, Ph.D., from West Virginia University and the appointment of Walter Hansbrough Carter Jr., who had just received his Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1967 they developed a graduate training program in biometry, offering the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, when a full-time dean of the graduate school was appointed. The first students, Dave Weiss and Mike Hogye, enrolled in the new graduate training program in 1969. In order to activate the mathematical component of the department, Charles Church, Ph.D., was recruited. In 1972 the faculty petitioned the administration to change the name of the department from biometry to biostatistics, to better reflect the department’s activities and interests. The administration agreed, and the newly named Department of Biostatistics was located in the first basement of Sanger Hall, named in honor of William T. Sanger, M.D., the third president of the college and founding trustee of the medical college.

In 1983 Kilpatrick stepped down as chair, and Sung Choi, Ph.D., served as interim chair until 1984. In 1984, Carter was chosen to chair the department. Under Carter’s leadership, the department grew to include 10 full-time faculty members and 15 doctoral candidates with an expansion of its collaborative research activities across the entire university.

After Carter retired in 2005, R.K. Elswick, Ph.D., served as interim chair until 2007. After a search for a new chair, Shumei Sun, Ph.D., of Wright State University’s Boonshoft Medical School accepted the position of chair of the Department of Biostatistics in November 2007. The department has doubled in size and now includes three full professors, four associate professors, seven assistant professors, and five instructors. The department is now recruiting for two bioinformetricians and one expert in clinical trial design for cancer research.