Skip main navigation

History of life science

Kevin explore's the history of life science, from the ancient Egyptians to today
5.6
KEVIN GLASGOW: So you want to study life science? The life sciences are a broad family of subjects. Some are relatively new, and others well established. To fully understand the relationship between them, it is important to see how each one came to fruition. And so, in this section, we will take you back in time and explore the history of life sciences. Life science is no new thing. An understanding, although basic, has existed for thousands of years. An early appreciation of the human body was explored by the Ancient Egyptians through embalmings. This process resulted in a knowledge of the natural decomposition. Another ancient culture which explored early life science were the Chinese.
42.4
Philosophers proposed ideas of evolution as early as the 4th century BCE. Perhaps the biggest early development in life science can be seen in the civilisation of ancient Greece and Rome. Great thinkers such as Aristotle worked on over 540 classifications of animal species, as well as performing dissections. And the Roman physician, Galen, became a key authority on anatomy, following dissections of animals such as the Barbary ape. The next major leap for life sciences came during the European Renaissance. The subject of anatomy and physiology continued to be developed with philosophers cum scientists such as William Harvey, most known for his investigations and understanding of the circulatory system.
83.7
Many of the discoveries in life science were made possible by the invention of the microscope, which was later refined by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Born in 1632, he’s often considered as the father of microbiology, another discipline of life science which is still familiar today. Carolus Linnaeus, sometimes known as the father of taxonomy, was also prominent in this time. He made great leaps, including laying down the foundation of binomial nomenclature. It’s around this time that the term “biology” was first coined. The term which comes from Greek “bios,” meaning life, and the suffix meaning “science of.” The phrase was used independently by a variety of scientists around 1800, including Thomas Beddoes, Kala Friedrich Burdach, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
126.1
During the 18th the 19th century, the fields of zoology and botany grew in interest and importance, with scientists such as Humboldt exploring organisms, specifically, the environment they lived in. Perhaps one of the most famous life scientists published his most famous work around this time– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. This groundbreaking work explored the theory of evolution, and started a movement that rejected spontaneous generation, instead promoting germ theory. Despite the huge advances made up to this point, there was still very little understanding of any cellular biology, and the mechanism of inheritance was yet to be understood. This began to change with the work of Gregor Mendel, often considered the founder of genetics.
168.6
His work on patterns of inheritance paved the way for others, such as Thomas Hunt Morgan, to explore genetics in the early 20th century. Genetics, and cellular biology, continued to be explored throughout the 20th century with scientists such as Rosalind Franklin making great contributions, eventually allowing James Watson and Francis Crick to propose the structure of DNA, in 1953, as well as what is known as the central dogma of biology, resulting in one of the most famous Nature articles of all time. By this stage, life science truly was, and still is, an international collaboration.
202.8
With the discovery of the structure of DNA, the fields of genetics, genomics, and molecular cell biology have continued to grow and flourish, most notable with the Human Genome Project. Contributions were made, in fact, right here at the Glasgow University. So what happens next? Well, for that we need you. The future of life science depends, and will be written, by young minds who have a passion for the natural world, and this desire to explore it. Who knows what will come next in the journey. The only way is to come and join us.

In this video Kevin explores the fundamentals of life science – what exactly is it and how did the study of life originate and develop?

This article is from the free online

So You Want to Study Life Science?

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education