History

Until 1960 the function of the thymus was obscure. In fact even in the 1950s it was not appreciated that the thymus is normally a very large organ in infancy. With the availability of chest X-rays, pediatricians were impressed with the size of the thymus and invoked the condition of 'status thymolymphaticus' -chronic strangulation by an enlarged thymus - to explain minor respiratory ailments. To relieve 'pressure' on the trachea, the thymus was exposed to irradiation! Despite such bizarre reasoning, as early as 1900 Beard, working on the stingray, had proposed that the thymus is the principal source of 'leucocytes'. This prescient suggestion - forgotten for the next 60 years - presaged the crucial finding of Miller in 1961 that removing the thymus from neonatal mice induced a wasting syndrome associated with impaired cellular immunity. Miller's conclusion that the thymus is the source of 'immunologically competent cells' and that 'lymphocytes leaving the thymus are specially selected cells' began the modern age of thymology.

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