Thomson, James

▪ 2002

      On Aug. 9, 2001, U.S. Pres. George W. Bush announced that the federal government would support research on the approximately 60 existing lines (self-sustaining colonies) of human embryonic stem cells, microscopically tiny undifferentiated cells that have the potential capability of growing into any one of the approximately 200 cell types that compose a human. Because of this capability, scientists believed that stem cells could be used as replacement cells in transplantation therapies in humans to treat such ailments as Parkinson disease, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries, and Alzheimer disease.

      President Bush's decision was the culmination of a series of developments that began in 1998 when James Thomson, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, became the first person to isolate stem cells from human embryos. For Thomson this achievement was the result of a long process of research and experimentation that began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

      Thomson was born in Chicago on Dec. 20, 1958, and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. At the University of Illinois, he was encouraged to work in the biology laboratories, where he became interested in the process of early development—the explosive surge of biological activity that occurs when a fertilized egg implants itself in a womb and then begins to divide and form the specialized cells that eventually become the great variety of tissues in the body. Continuing his education and research at the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Thomson learned that biologists in 1980 had succeeded in extracting embryonic stem cells from mice. Because embryonic development in mice differs considerably from that in humans, Thomson then decided to conduct stem cell research on a species much more similar to humans; he chose the rhesus monkey.

      In 1991 Thomson moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he continued his research at the primate centre. After many months of painstaking work, he succeeded in isolating the rhesus monkey embryonic stem cells in 1995. The obvious next step, to Thomson, was to try to extract stem cells from human embryos. This, however, confronted him with a moral dilemma, because such an extraction kills the embryo. After consulting with bioethicists at the university, Thomson decided that continued research was “the better ethical choice” as long as the embryos, created by couples who no longer wanted them in order to have children, would otherwise be destroyed.

      After he succeeded in isolating the human embryonic stem cells, Thomson assigned the patent for his discovery to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation; the patent covered both the method of isolating the cells and the cells themselves. Consequently, the National Institutes of Health, the agency responsible for implementing President Bush's decision, planned to negotiate with the foundation in order to gain access to the stem cells. As for Thomson, he commented that he was somewhat disappointed that the Bush edict would restrict the creation of new cell lines, but he was generally pleased that the research would go forward.

David R. Calhoun

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▪ Scottish poet [1700-48]
born Sept. 11, 1700, Ednam, Roxburgh, Scot.
died Aug. 27, 1748, Richmond, Eng.

      Scottish poet whose best verse foreshadowed some of the attitudes of the Romantic movement. His poetry also gave expression to the achievements of Newtonian science and to an England reaching toward great political power based on commercial and maritime expansion.

      Educated at Jedburgh Grammar School and the University of Edinburgh, Thomson went to London in 1725. While earning his living there as a tutor, he published his masterpiece, a long, blank verse poem in four parts, called The Seasons: Winter in 1726, Summer in 1727, Spring in 1728, and the whole poem, including Autumn, in 1730.

      The Seasons was the first sustained nature poem in English and concludes with a “Hymn to Nature.” The work was a revolutionary departure; its novelty lay not only in subject matter but in structure. What was most striking to Thomson's earliest readers was his audacity in unifying his poem without a “plot” or other narrative device, thereby defying the Aristotelian criteria revered by the Neoclassicist critics.

      Thomson's belief that the scientist and poet must collaborate in the service of God, as revealed through nature, found its best expression in To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (1727).

      The poet also is remembered as the author of the famous ode “Rule, Britannia,” from Alfred, a Masque (1740, with music by T.A. Arne); for his ambitious poem in five parts, Liberty (1735–36); and for The Castle of Indolence (1748), an allegory in Spenserian stanzas of what may occur when Indolence overcomes Industry.

▪ Scottish poet [1834-82]
pseudonym  Bysshe Vanolis , or  B.V. 
born Nov. 23, 1834, Port Glasgow, Renfrew, Scot.
died June 3, 1882, London
 Scottish Victorian poet who is best remembered for his sombre, imaginative poem “The City of Dreadful Night,” a symbolic expression of his horror of urban dehumanization.

      Reared in an orphanage, Thomson entered the Royal Military Academy, Chelsea, became a regimental schoolmaster, and in 1851 was sent to Ireland. There he met the freethinker and radical Charles Bradlaugh (Bradlaugh, Charles), who was to be of great importance to his literary career.

      In 1862 Thomson was discharged from the army and went to London, where he supported himself as a clerk while writing essays, poems, and stories, many of them published in Bradlaugh's National Reformer, a worker's weekly. “The City of Dreadful Night” first appeared in this periodical in 1874. Thomson's chronic depressions and periods of alcoholism made either social or professional success difficult, and eventually he quarrelled even with Bradlaugh. Nevertheless, the publication of a volume of Thomson's poetry, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems (1880), received favourable critical attention.

      Thomson's poem “Insomnia” is autobiographical; and in “Mater Tenebrarum” and elsewhere among his writings, passages of self-revelation are frequent. He was an admirer and translator of Giacomo Leopardi (Leopardi, Giacomo), but, unlike the Italian poet, Thomson did not temper his pessimism with any kind of social optimism. No other Victorian poet displays more bleakly the dark underside of an age of change and hope.

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Universalium. 2010.

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