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Thomas D. Brock

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Subject: History of polymerase chain reaction, Yellowstone National Park, 1969 in science, Cell wall, Metabolism
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Thomas D. Brock

Thomas D. Brock
Tom Brock in Yellowstone Park July 2002.
Born (1926-09-10)10 September 1926
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
Residence US
Nationality American
Fields Microbiology
Institutions The Upjohn Company
Case Western Reserve University
Indiana University
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Alma mater Ohio State University
Doctoral advisor William D. Gray
Known for Thermophilic bacteria
Thermus aquaticus

Thomas Dale Brock (born September 10, 1926) is an American microbiologist known for his discovery of hyperthermophiles living in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. In the late 1960s, Brock discovered high-temperature bacteria living in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone, and with his colleague Hudson Freeze, they isolated a sample they named Thermus aquaticus.[1]

"Life at High Temperatures", a 1967 article summarizing his research, was published in the journal amplifying DNA segments. Brock's discoveries led to great progress in biology, contributed to new developments in medicine and agriculture, and helped create the new field of biotechnology.[2]

Brock and his wife now manage the Pleasant Valley Conservancy, a 140-acre (57 ha) Wisconsin State Natural Area Preserve in western Dane County, Wisconsin.

Early life

Thomas Dale Brock was born in Cleveland, Ohio on September 10, 1926, the only child of Helen Sophia Ringwald, of Chillicothe, Ohio, and Thomas Carter Brock, of Toronto, Canada. Though Cleveland was an industrial city, his home was situated near a farm and forested park with views of Lake Erie, so that he grew up in an "idyllic environment", surrounded by nature.

Brock's father, who had never received a formal education, had encouraged Brock to pursue university, and taught Brock how to assemble electrical equipment. At the age of 10, Brock received a chemistry set as a Christmas present, and his father helped him set up a basement laboratory. When Brock was 15, his father became seriously ill, and the family moved back to his mother's home in Ohio. Months later, Brock's father died, leaving the family in a state of poverty. Brock immediately went to work for $0.25 per hour to support himself and his mother in various odd jobs.[3]

Although Brock had decided to attend college and become a chemist, World War II was in progress. After graduating from high school, Brock joined the United States Navy and spent more than a year in their electronics program.[3]

Under the G.I. Bill, Brock began attending Ohio State University in 1946, initially with aspirations of becoming a writer, yet still drawn to chemistry and science. He earned a B.Sc. (1949), M.Sc. (1950), and Ph.D. (1952) in botany,[4] specializing in experimental mycology and yeast physiology. His graduate work centered on the mushroom Morchella esculenta and the yeast Hansenula anomala.


After completing his Ph.D, Brock took a position in the antibiotics research department at the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where out of necessity he became self-taught in microbiology and molecular biology. By the time he left Upjohn, he had published six papers in respectable journals and become a member of the Society of American Bacteriologists. In 1957, Brock joined the faculty of the Department of Biology at Western Reserve University. In 1960, he accepted the position of assistant professor of bacteriology at Indiana University, where he was promoted to full professorship in 1964. He moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1971 and became chairman of the Department of Bacteriology in 1979.[3][4]

Bacteria are able to grow ... at any temperature at which there is liquid water, even in pools which are above the boiling point.[5]

Thomas D. Brock, 1967

From 1965 through 1975, Brock conducted field and laboratory research on thermophilic microorganisms in Yellowstone National Park, funded by a grant from the polymerase chain reaction. PCR utilizes an enzyme in T. aquaticus, now known as Taq polymerase, to speed up DNA replication. The process, invented by Kary Mullis, won a Nobel Prize.[6]

In 1998, Brock helped update and contribute to a new version of René Dubos' 1960 book, Pasteur and Modern Science. In 1999, he translated and edited Milestones in Microbiology 1546 to 1940, a collection of the most important papers in early microbiology, including work by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister. Also released in the same year was Brock's Robert Koch: A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology, a biography of German physician Robert Koch.

Brock is retired and holds the E.B. Fred Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. During his career, Brock published more than 250 papers and 20 books, and received numerous science and education awards.

Brock and his wife, Kathie, operate Pleasant Valley Conservancy, a Wisconsin State Natural Area, a 140-acre (57 ha) Preserve in western Dane County, Wisconsin. It consists of extensive restored oak savannas, dry, mesic, and wet prairies, wetlands, and oak woods. Scenic views and wildlife viewing are excellent, and several trails provide ready access to the Preserve. Especially noteworthy at Pleasant Valley are the fine oak savannas, once common in the Midwest but now very rare. The Preserve has many large open-grown white and bur oaks, which can be viewed from Pleasant Valley Road, and seen close up from the trails. The herbaceous layer in the savanna is highly diverse.[7]

The thermophilic bacterial species, Thermoanaerobacter brockii, is named after Brock.[8]


  • 1984 Fisher Award in Environmental and Applied Microbiology (America Society for Microbiology)[9]
  • 1988 Carski Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award (American Society for Microbiology)
  • 1992 Pasteur Award, American Society for Microbiology (Illinois)
  • 1997 Bergey Medal, Bergey's Trust
  • 2013 Golden Goose Award, Association of American Universities and AAAS
  • 2006 Aldo Leopold Award, University of Wisconsin Arboretum
  • Honorary Member, American Society for Microbiology

Selected works


  1. ^ Brock, Thomas D. (March 1998). "Early Days in Yellowstone Microbiology". ASM News ( 
  2. ^ Snyder, Brian (October 2007). "Why the NSF Biology Budget Should Be Doubled".  
  3. ^ a b c Brock, Thomas D. (October 1995). "The road to Yellowstone - and beyond".  
  4. ^ a b Meyer, Bernard S. (1983). Botany at the Ohio State University: The First 100 Years. College of Biological Sciences,  
  5. ^ Brock, Thomas D. (Oct 11, 1985). "Life at high temperatures." Science. 230:132.
  6. ^ Stephenson, Shauna (2007-08-17). "Thermus Aquaticus". Outdoors ( 
  7. ^ Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area
  8. ^ Gross, Michael (2001). Life on the Edge: Amazing Creatures Thriving in Extreme Environments. Basic Books. pp. 16–17.  
  9. ^ (May 1988). BioScience. 38(5):363-366. ISSN: 00063568

Further reading

External links

  • Thomas D. Brock, Professor of Bacteriology, Emeritus, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Pleasant Valley Conservancy, personal blog
  • Thomas D. Brock papers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison Archives
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