Our Institute – Past and Present

Brief history
In the early years of the University of Zurich (founded in 1833), the Institute of Physiology was closely associated with the Institute of Anatomy, in terms of location, teaching and research. In 1885, together with the Institute of Physics, the Institute moved to a new building at Rämistrasse 69 (now the Medical Museum), where it remained for nearly 100 years. The Institute settled in its current location at the new Zurich-Irchel campus in 1983.

One of the most notable past directors of the Institute was Professor Walter Rudolf Hess, who was appointed in 1937 and held this position for over 30 years. For his pioneering work in functional neuroscience, particularly on the organization of the midbrain (diencephalon) as higher center of the autonomous nervous system, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949. His successor, Prof. Oscar A.M. Wyss, also a neurophysiologist, headed the Institute from 1951 to 1973. He was followed by the 5 year directorship of Prof. Konrad Akert, who, in 1962, also founded the Brain Research Institute (Hirnforschungsinstitut). Prof. Christian Bauer headed the Institute from 1984 until 1997, followed by Prof. Heini Murer from 1997 to 2006, when he became Vice-Rector for Research at the University of Zürich. In 2006, the Institute was reorganized with a directorate consisting of all elected Professors (currently 5) and a rotating chairman, a position that was held by Prof. François Verrey from 2006 until 2014, when Prof. Roland Wenger took over this responsibility.

As reflected by the research orientation of its former chairmen and by the Nobel Prize of Prof. Walter Hess, the Institute of Physiology established strong foundations in neurophysiology. With the creation of the Institute of Brain Research (Hirnforschungsinstitut) in 1962, the Institute became progressively reoriented towards vegetative physiology. Professor Erwin Koller introduced the low-pressure chamber in 1984 for oxygen physiology research and this was complemented at the cellular and molecular levels and extended to kidney-related hormone systems, namely erythropoietin and renin-angiotensin with Prof. Christian Bauer’s appointment (1984-2003). Prof. Heini Murer’s appointment (1981-2010), established membrane transport physiology as one of the Institute’s major research strengths, with particular emphasis on kidney solute transport. The focus on vegetative physiology was augmented by the appointments of Prof. Eric Berger (1988-2008), who introduced the field of glycosylation physiology, and of Prof. Urs Boutellier in (1995-2013, shared appointment with the ETHZ) who studied in particular the role of breathing in exercise physiology.

The research areas of the current professors concern vegetative physiology and can be seen as extending those of the former generation of group leaders. Prof. Roland Wenger’s, Prof. Carsten Lundby's and Prof. Ian Frew's research centre on oxygen physiology and its molecular signalling mechanisms; Prof. François Verrey, Prof. Carsten Wagner and Prof. Olivier Devuyst work on transport processes and their regulation, in particular in the context of kidney physiology; Prof. Thierry Hennet and Prof. Lubor Borsig work on the physiological roles of glycosylation; and Prof. Vartan Kurtcuoglu is an expert in computational modelling of physiological processes. With the creation of two research networks anchored at the Institute of Physiology, which involve basic and clinical scientists (ZIHP and NCCR Kidney.CH), the current trend of extending research from the cellular and molecular levels to whole organ and systemic aspects is being reinforced. The ZIHP (Zurich Center for Integrative Human Physiology) functions since 2004 and is supported until 2016 by the University Research Priority Program (URPP) 'Integrative Human Physiology'. The National Center of Competence in Research 'Kidney – Control of Homeostasis' (NCCR Kidney.CH) started its activity in 2010 and is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the University of Zurich (UZH). The integration of the Institute’s research groups into these research networks also underscores and stimulates their cooperation with research ongoing in different institutions, in particular also within clinical departments.


The Institute of Physiology actively participates in teaching various study courses. Historically, most of the teaching has focused on the education of preclinical medical students. Starting in 2003, the medical curriculum was extensively modified. Members of the Institute were actively involved in conceiving and implementing these changes. Since 2004, the Institute also belongs to the Faculty of Sciences (Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät), alongside its primary affiliation with the Faculty of Medicine. Members of the Institute founded and still organize the Bachelor Program in Biomedicine, the Masters Program in Human Biology as well as the PhD Program in Integrative Molecular Medicine. Furthermore, the Institute of Physiology provides lectures of physiology also outside the curricula of medicine and human biology.


The major goals of the Institute of Physiology are excellence in basic research on questions relating to integrative physiology, together with up-to-date teaching. The main research themes reflect the position of the Institute at the boundary between the Medical and Science Faculties and its role in fostering a strong vegetative physiology that investigates basic science questions. We consider that performing research and teaching in vegetative physiology, independent of clinical departments, creates an environment that lets us address basic questions, which are not necessarily aimed at being translated to the bedside in the short term. On the other hand, actively collaborating with our guest and affiliated groups (Anaesthesiology, Nephrology and Cardiology, respectively) and with clinical researchers, for instance in the context of the Zurich Center for Integrative Human Physiology (ZIHP) and the NCCR Kidney.CH, means that we are exposed to clinically relevant questions that also guide our research activity.

The Institute of Physiology lies at the border between the Medical and the Science Faculties. As such it has to play a central role in bridging both teaching and research of Biological and Medical Sciences. It performs modern research in integrative and molecular vegetative physiology and is strongly involved in its teaching to both medical and science students.

January 2016