Health & Medicine

Stem Cell Story Line

James Thomson’s discoveries inspired scientists around the world.

Derived from human embryonic stem cells, precursor neural cells grow in a lab dish and generate mature neurons (red) and glial cells (green)

Courtesy of Zhang Lab

For the last quarter century, UW–Madison has been among the global leaders in stem cell science, and that status is largely due to cell biologist James Thomson. Thomson made waves at the end of the 20th century when he isolated embryonic stem cells, opening new avenues of research and inspiring the imagination of scientists around the globe. In July, Thomson will retire from the UW, where he leaves behind a legacy of discovery.


  • Earns his bachelor’s from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (nobody’s perfect)


  • Earns his VMD from the University of Pennsylvania


  • Earns his doctorate in molecular biology from Penn; his dissertation is titled “The Developmental Potential of Androgenones, Gynogenones, and Parthenogenones”


  • Begins residency in veterinary pathology at UW–Madison


  • Joins staff at the UW’s Primate Research Center; publishes “Isolation of a Primate Embryonic Stem Cell Line” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science


  • Publishes “Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Blastocytes” in the journal Science; in this research, Thomson becomes the first person to successfully culture human embryonic stem cells
  • WARF patents Thomson’s discovery on December 1
  • WiCell is established, home to the Wisconsin International Stem Cell Bank


  • Science names Thomson’s stem cell research the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year
  • The American Academy of Achievement gives Thomson its Golden Plate Award


  • On August 9, President George W. Bush delivers a speech that allows federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but only in 60 stem cell lines.
  • Time magazine puts Thomson on the cover of its August 20 issue, naming him in an article titled “America’s Best in Science and Medicine”


  • Thomson receives the World Technology Award



  • Both Thomson’s lab and a lab at Kyoto University, headed by Shinya Yamanaka, announce the development of induced pluripotent stem cells — stem cells not obtained from embryos


  • President Barack Obama lifts restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research


  • With Yamanaka, receives the King Faisal Prize for medicine and, with Yamanaka and Elaine Fuchs, the  Albany Medical Center Prize


  • Thomson gives a valedictory address to the campus community and retires

Published in the Winter 2018 issue


No comments posted yet.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *