Thomas Brock receives UW–Madison honorary degree

Pioneering scientist Thomas Brock, the E.B. Fred Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus at UW–Madison, helped usher in modern molecular biology. Now, in his post-retirement work, he is promoting biodiversity and ecological conservation in innovative and important ways.

Thomas Brock, receiving his honorary degree on May 10.

This past weekend, he was awarded a UW–Madison honorary doctorate of science degree during the commencement ceremony that took place on Friday, May 10 at the Kohl Center. The honorary degree recognizes Brock’s contributions to science and society both before and after his career at UW–Madison.

While a professor at Indiana University in the 1960s, Brock discovered the extreme thermophile Thermus aquaticus thriving in a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. The discovery debunked a key piece of conventional wisdom in biology – that life could not exist past about 158 degrees Fahrenheit–and led to the creation of an entirely new field, extremophile biology. In 1967 and 1969, he published two defining papers on the new bacterium, in Science and the Journal of Bacteriology.

The bacteria’s heat-resistant DNA replicating machinery, Taq polymerase, was turned into a bedrock of modern molecular biology called polymerase chain reaction. Subsequent studies in the field have challenged assumptions about the nature and resilience of life and led to innumerable advances in molecular biology, DNA sequencing, medical research, clinical testing, and the reconstruction of evolution. These discoveries changed the understanding of the environmental limits for life–not just on Earth, but elsewhere in the universe.

Brock wrote the classic text Principles of Microbial Ecology, published in 1966. In 1971, with substantial support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), he joined the faculty of UW–Madison. He continued his groundbreaking research on microbes, now with Lake Mendota as a laboratory.

His retirement in 1990 initiated a new focus. With his wife, Kathie, also a microbiologist, he has advanced the conservation and restoration of a Midwestern oak savanna, one of the most characteristic–and endangered–ecosystems in the central United States. The couple’s Pleasant Valley Conservancy  property near Black Earth, Wisconsin, has become a model for land managers and a training ground for the next generation of restoration ecologists.

Honorary doctorates from UW–Madison recognize individuals with careers of extraordinary accomplishment. The Committee on Honorary Degrees considers sustained and uncommonly meritorious activity exhibiting values that are esteemed by a great university. Preference is given to people connected in some significant way to the state or university, though that is not a prerequisite.