The Biophysical Society: A Short History

L. S. Satin, Publications Committee Member

The Biophysical Society was founded in the 1950s to lead the development and dissemination of knowledge in biophysics through many activities including meetings, publications, community outreach, and career placement. The Society members, of which there are currently over 7,000, work in academia, industry, and government agencies worldwide. Membership is open to scientists who have educational, research, or practical experience in biophysics or an allied scientific field (excerpted from the Biophysical Society’s Constitution and Bylaws.

Origins: Restive biophysicists form new society led by an esteemed “Group of Four”

The field of biophysics grew immensely during WWII and the increased availability of increasingly quantitative tools such as sophisticated electronic instruments and radioisotopes for basic science and medical studies stimulated increased progress. The continued growth of the parent scientific group, the American Physiological Society (APS), founded in 1887, (1; 3—see “For Further Reading,” page 5) and concomitantly the size of its scientific meetings led to the idea that perhaps the biophysicists would be better served by having a society of their own, perhaps one more allied with physics? (1). In addition, other groups within APS were also becoming restive, including the physiological chemists, neuroscientists, immunologists, and others (1).

To address this issue, several prominent biophysicists in the country began corresponding with one another to gauge each other’s interest in a possible society of their own, ultimately with its own meetings and its own journal. Meetings were held to discuss these issues in Boston at Tufts College in September, 1955, at the Hartford House at Yale, also in 1955, and at the American Institute of Physics meeting in New York in 1956. At this meeting, an initial steering committee was appointed, and this culminated at a Federation meeting in Atlantic City in 1956. At this meeting, a vote was cast to have a national biophysics meeting and a Group of Four was appointed to get things going and make the first biophysics meeting a reality. This committee consisted of Ernest C. Pollard, Yale University; Samuel A. Talbot, Johns Hopkins University; Otto Schmitt, University of Minnesota; and Kenneth S. Cole, NNRI, NIH (1-3).

While the APS tried their best to avoid the inevitable splintering of their society into different interest groups (see President’s News Letter of 1955 from William Hamilton, APS president), with much correspondence going to and from and with the promise offered that perhaps the interests of the various APS subgroups could be well accommodated if the APS formed different subgroups (eventually implemented, but not until the 1970s), progress in forming an independent biophysics society continued unabated. Besides the Group of Four, other distinguished American biophysicists contributed much time and energy to this effort, including W. A. Selle, University of California, Los Angeles; Max Lauffer, University of Pittsburgh; Ralph Stacy, Herman Schwann, Penn State University, and others (1-3).

Columbus, 1957: The first biophysics meeting

The early efforts of these individuals culminated in the “First National Biophysics Conference”, held in Columbus, Ohio on March 4–6, 1957. The meeting was organized by the Group of Four, and of these four, three were still members of the APS at the time. At the beginning of the meeting, which had an attendance of about 500, Cole of the Committee of Four made the following remarks concerning the early steps taken to help form the still nascent biophysical society:

“Last Spring, after considerable rumbling, some minor explosions, and not a little bickering, a Committee of Four was designated to organize a biophysics meeting with the ulterior motive of finding out if there was such a thing as biophysics and, if so, what sort of thing this biophysics might be” (2).

Besides talks and scientific presentations, a business meeting was held at the first meeting, presided over by Lauffer, and the decision was made at that time to formally organize the Biophysical Society and elect a Temporary Council to run it. Later, Robley Williams was elected first President and the Constitution and the Bylaws of the Biophysical Society were adopted. At the second Annual Meeting, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Constitution and the Bylaws of the Biophysical Society were officially ratified. An interesting note is that Williams was originally trained as an astronomer but later became interested in the study of viruses (1–3)!

The establishment of the Biophysical Journal

Two years after the National Biophysical Conference, the Biophysical Journal (BJ) was established as the official publication of the new Biophysical Society. The formation of BJ was viewed as an indispensable need by the biophysicists of the time and was part of the reason for being of the Society. It was felt that the BJ would allow biophysicists to have a specialized journal devoted to their own interests in the application of physics to biomedical problems, as extant journals were viewed as being not entirely sympathetic to papers authored by biophysicists (1, 4). Having their own journal and a society that was both smaller and more focused, would be advantageous in many ways and stimulatory to the field as it moved forward. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that within several years, the Journal of Neurophysiology was established by the APS, and later, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) broke away from APS and founded its own journal as well, the Journal of Neuroscience (1).

Growth of the Society and the Journal over the last 60 years

The Biophysical Society has continued to grow and prosper and its Annual Meeting is attended by over 6,000 scientists working in biophysics, the biggest meeting of its kind in the world. More than 4,000 poster presentations are offered, more than 20 symposia, and over 200 exhibits per meeting. However, despite this growth, compared to meetings of Experimental Biology (12,000) or the Society for Neuroscience (32,000), the Biophysical Society meeting is relatively small and much more intimate (6,900 at 2010 Annual Meeting). The Society also holds smaller and more focused meetings of a thematic nature each year.

The Biophysical Journal is published twice monthly and is widely acknowledged to be the outstanding, cutting edge journal in biophysics today (4). With the growth and rapid development of molecular biology, BJ has expanded to include contributions on the application of biophysics to gene and protein structure, gene regulation, advanced optical imaging, and many other cutting-edge areas of biophysics. Certainly the early dreams of the pioneers who organized the Society and worked hard to see it take shape have been amply realized!

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I would like to thank Henry Lester and Ro Kampman for their encouragement, and Lindsey Loeper, Special Collections Archivist of the Albin O. Kuhn Library of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for supplying me with copies of original materials from the Biophysical Society Archives of the University of Maryland. Arthur Sherman, Dave Piston and R. Williams, Jr., kindly provided comments on an earlier version.

For Further Reading

  1. History of the American Physiological Society: The First Century, 1887-1987. J. Brobeck, O. Reynolds and T. Appel (eds.). APS, Baltimore. 1987.
  2. Proceeds of the First National Biophysical Conference. H. Quastler and H. Morowitz (eds.). Yale University Press, New Haven. 1959.
  3. Lauffer MA. History of the Biophysical Society. UMBC Archives.
  4. Oncley JL. 1990. Remarks on the origins of the Biophyscial Journal. Biophys. J. 58: 1335-1340.