In Remembrance of Dr. Wesley Jay Thompson
December 10, 1947—March 26, 2019
Our friend and colleague, Dr. Wesley Jay Thompson, died March 26, 2019 in Bryan/College Station from complications of kidney cancer. He was 71 years old.
Wes received his BS and MS in biology with honors from North Texas State University. He went on to earn a PhD in molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1975. His thesis advisor, Dr. Gunther Stent, was a well-known molecular biologist who had recently converted to neurobiology. Wes’ thesis research in Stent’s lab concerned the problem of how neural circuits function in the relatively simple central nervous system of the leech, with a view toward gaining insights as to how neural circuits might work in the central nervous system of higher organisms. He used electrophysiology and cell-specific staining techniques for the project, which he continued to employ in increasingly sophisticated ways throughout his research career.
Upon graduation from UC Berkeley, Wes accepted a 2-year post-doctoral fellowship for neurophysiology research at the University of Oslo in Oslo, Norway. With his postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Jan K. S. Jansen, he did pioneering work on factors that regulate the formation of neural connections to muscle fibers in mammalian skeletal muscles. In particular, they provided a major advance in developmental neurobiology by showing for the first time that the arrangement of neural connections to muscle fibers in mature muscles is dependent on the nature of the neurons’ electrical activity during neonatal development. Wes went on to undertake additional post-doctoral training at Washington University in St. Louis with the well-known neurobiologist, Dr. Dale Purves, from 1977–1979. In 1979, he accepted a faculty position in the biological sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, where he climbed the academic ladder to full professor. In 2013, he moved to Texas A&M University where he joined the Department of Biology and the recently formed Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience. Throughout his career, he published more than 50 groundbreaking research articles in peer-reviewed journals. A majority of his publications addressed the establishment of mammalian muscle innervation during development, how it is maintained in the adult, how it is affected by disease, how it behaved during aging, and how it regenerated after trauma. All of these accounts came from keen observation, rigorous control experiments, and imaginative insights. Wes was a mentor to 13 PhD students and served on over 70 dissertation committees during his career. He taught countless undergraduate and graduate students in standard university courses. Wes was named a Searle Scholar in 1981, received a National Institutes of Health Research Career Development Award in 1984, and the NIH Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award in 2001. He received a College of Natural Sciences, University of Texas, Teaching Excellence Award in 2000.
Wes was born in Alice, Texas in 1947 to Jay and Harriett (nee McMahan) Thompson. The family moved to Crawford, Texas, where he graduated from Crawford High School in 1966. His former wife, Mary Ann Rankin, his daughter, Anne, his sister, Mary Graf, a niece, a nephew, and 3 grandnephews survives him.
Wes loved Texas, which he constantly referred to as God’s country. When not in the lab, he was an avid gardener. He grew enough tomatoes in some years to feed his entire university department. His colleagues knew him as a wise and generous counselor, as well as an excellent scientist and teacher. Throughout his academic career, he sought to infect his students with the concept that curiosity and kindness form the best foundation for a joyful and productive life.
We will celebrate Wes Thompson’s life and career at a remembrance convocation at 10:30 am on Sunday, April 28, 2019 in room 1105 of the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building on the campus of Texas A&M University. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.