University of Wisconsin–Madison
Stem cells in a lab dish

About Stem Cells

Stem Cell collage
Image courtesy of Michael Schwartz of the Thomson and Murphy labs.

Immortal: An oral history of stem cell discovery

by Courtni Kopietz, Morgridge Institute for Research

It’s rare when a single discovery ushers in a new era of science, placing a clear “before” and “after” signpost on the timeline of scientific progress.

The development of the first vaccine in 1797. The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. The first isolation of a human embryonic stem cell in 1998.

In November 1998, the journal Science published James Thomson’s groundbreaking work on embryonic stem cells. For the first time, scientists could explore the immortal cells capable of becoming all the cells in the human body.

There has been 20 years of progress since the initial discovery spawned a new field of research, and tremendous potential exists for the future.

The discovery changed the world, and it changed Wisconsin. We reached out to the people who lived it, and they shared the experiences in their own words. This is their story.