King's College London admitted this week that its chemistry department is considered unsustainable and may face closure.
The news comes a week after King's chemistry professor Susan Gibson was named the first winner of the Royal Society's Rosalind Franklin award for excellence in science.
The university is also due a fortnight from now to host a day of celebrations highlighting its role in the discovery of DNA.
A spokesperson for King's said: "The department is running a large annual deficit, and the college management has concluded that it is unsustainable to continue to support chemistry at this level, which is inevitably at the expense of other departments."
Staff were informed last week. Sources in the department, which received a 4 rating in the last research assessment exercise, told The THES that they were shocked.
One source said staff were aware the department was running at a loss, largely because chemistry is an expensive subject. But many in the department felt this was the general state of chemistry departments across the country and therefore no cause for real concern.
The recruitment of undergraduate chemistry students will continue for 2003-4. But the future of the department is uncertain.
A management group is exploring ways in which a chemistry research programme might be retained in the college.
Academics in other UK chemistry departments and industry representatives have contacted colleagues at King's to express their disappointment.
Keith Jones, professor of organic chemistry at Kingston University and a former lecturer at King's, said: "I'm dumbfounded by this news. The university has had chemistry since 1830. The department is doing well."
He added: "It is interesting that this comes right after the white paper announcement of top-up fees. After all, which universities can realistically charge top-up fees for chemistry?"
David Giachardi, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:
"This does nothing to encourage chemistry. We are worried it might start a domino effect [of closures]."