Our History

History Timeline of The Jackson Laboratory

The Jackson Laboratory has made fundamental contributions to biomedical research, including cancer genetics and establishing the mouse as the premier research animal model.

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Humble beginnings

Founded in 1929 in Bar Harbor, Maine, The Jackson Laboratory was born of the visionary belief that significant advances in human health could be made by scientists working together in the right environment, with the right tools.

For Clarence Cook Little and seven fellow scientists, the environment was one of community and support, where ideas could be explored with grit, determination, and an open-minded, innovative spirit. The tools were the genetically-defined mice that would soon become the gold standard models for interrogating human biology and disease. Their research and the models that resulted would have a profound impact on the entire field of biomedicine, from fundamental research to patient care.

During his undergraduate studies at Harvard’s Bussey Institute in the early 1900s, Little explored whether Gregor Mendel’s rules of inheritance, established for pea plants, also applied to mammals. Mice were natural subjects for these investigations, as they possessed the desirable traits of rapid and prolific breeding. Furthermore, pedigreed "fancy mice" with distinct coat colors and behaviors had been selectively bred for centuries by hobbyists in Asia and England. Little acquired fancy mice from a Massachusetts farm owned by Abby Lathrop and, while still an undergraduate, published a seminal paper on the inheritance of coat color.

In 1922, when Little assumed the presidency of the University of Maine, he and his students established a summer field laboratory on land owned by a family friend, George B. Dorr, on Mount Desert Island. The island's climate proved to be ideal for mouse husbandry and for investigating the genetic basis of cancer through mammalian models.

By 1925, Little had become president of the University of Michigan where he forged friendships with prominent figures such as Edsel Ford and Roscoe B. Jackson, president of the Hudson Motor Car Company, who spent their summers in Maine. In 1929, supported by these dedicated investors, Little returned to Maine to establish the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory on land donated by Dorr. The Laboratory, named posthumously for Jackson, was dedicated to the study of mammalian genetics and cancer.

Construction of the Laboratory was nearly complete in October of the same year when the U.S. stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression and decimating funding sources. Despite these grim circumstances, Little and his team found creative ways to sustain the Laboratory and its relevance. In 1933, they began selling research mice to researchers across the country, raising much-needed funds to support research efforts.

Despite resource constraints, scientists at the Laboratory achieved remarkable milestones, including discovering a cancer-causing mouse mammary tumor virus and performing the first successful transfer of fertilized ova. By 1938, the Laboratory secured its initial funding from the new National Cancer Institute, welcomed its first postdoctoral researchers and expanded its infrastructure with a new wing. As World War II neared its end, donations of nearby property brought hope for further expansion.

In 1947, a catastrophic forest fire ravaged most of Mount Desert Island, including the Laboratory and the majority of its mouse colonies. However, this tragedy proved to be a pivotal turning point, demonstrating the value of “JAX,” as the Laboratory had affectionately become known, to researchers worldwide.


Growth and discovery

Under the leadership of Elizabeth “Tibby” Russell, the first of many influential women leaders at JAX, scientists from around united to restore breeding pairs and rebuild JAX’s mouse colonies. Remarkably, all but one strain were successfully re-established. Recovery funds poured in from various sources, such as the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, the Maine Cancer Society and the Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. By 1950, JAX was operating from a more secure and advanced facility, its staff had expanded and property donations enabled interns in the newly formalized Summer Student Program to reside in proper housing instead of tents.

From this point forward, JAX flourished. Research grants poured in, scientific achievements mounted and mice sales increased, solidifying JAX as the world’s leading institution for mammalian genetics. In the 1950s, scientist Margaret Green established what would become the NIH-funded Mouse Genome Database, now considered the world's most comprehensive data resource for mouse genetics. The construction of new research and mouse breeding facilities allowed JAX to expand both its own research programs and the distribution of mice to others.

In the subsequent decades, JAX continued to enhance its reputation as a world-class scientific hub. In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, JAX initiated the Short Course on Medical and Experimental Mammalian Genetics, still considered the most influential annual training event in medical genetics today. Pioneering work by Leroy Stevens led to the identification of cells that can develop into different tissues, known today as stem cells. Tibby Russell performed the first bone marrow transplants in a mammal, opening new avenues for treating blood and immunological diseases. George Snell received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1980 for groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for organ transplantation. Douglas L. Coleman's discovery of leptin, a hormone crucial to obesity and diabetes, earned him several international awards, including a Lasker Award. Larry Mobraaten and John Eppig developed technologies for freezing sperm, ova and embryos and established in vitro fertilization techniques that are the basis of today’s fertility treatments. In recognition of its significant contributions, the JAX Cancer Center was designated by the National Cancer Institute as one of just seven Basic Laboratory Cancer Centers in the United States in 1983 — an honor that endures to this day.

On May 10, 1989, as JAX stood poised for continued success under the new leadership of Kenneth Paigen, another devastating fire struck, destroying much of the mouse production facility and threatening to disrupt mouse research worldwide. The biomedical community rallied once more, returning breeding pairs to JAX to help rescue lost strains. With the support of federal legislators, Paigen secured funding to rebuild and expand JAX’s capabilities, focusing on cutting-edge gene transfer technology to enable better models of human disease.

JAX innovations continued to open exciting avenues for pre-clinical research and clinical applications. The immunocompromised NSG™ mouse, developed by Lenny Shultz, is instrumental for several JAX research programs and service offerings, and is used worldwide to test targeted therapies, gene sequencing technologies and other interventions for various diseases and cancers. In the early 2000s, JAX expanded its reach by establishing a second facility in Sacramento, California, focused on model development, breeding, distribution, and research services for pharmaceutical and biotech companies and universities.


From the bench to the clinic

In 2011, JAX appointed internationally acclaimed physician, scientist and administrator Edison Liu as president and CEO. As the Laboratory’s first clinician director, Liu was ideally positioned to connect JAX’s legacy in mammalian genetics with the burgeoning field of human genomics, maximize its reach and enhance its clinical impact.

The 2012 launch of The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, provided JAX researchers with a platform to directly connect human data and medical insights with experimental model research. The Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative, a collaboration between oncology providers and JAX researchers established in Augusta in 2016, is profoundly altering cancer care delivery in Maine and beyond. The JAX Clinical Knowledgebase has become a valued resource for clinicians around the world, and JAX’s clinical education programs train doctors and other care providers to leverage genomics in their patients’ care. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, JAX demonstrated thought leadership and support by offering testing services to hospitals and front-line workers, distributing the mouse model used for vaccine development, and intensifying research into COVID-19 and its impacts on human health.


Expanding horizons

JAX's commitment to advancing biomedical knowledge continued throughout Liu’s tenure, with three new research wings constructed in Bar Harbor and the establishment of six coordinated research centers to complement the JAX Cancer Center. JAX education programs grew in both scope and reach. From foundational genetics and genomics to continuing education for clinicians, JAX’s in-person and digital courses and conferences engage students from high school to practicing professionals around the globe. In 2018, JAX opened a first-of-its-kind mouse vivarium in Ellsworth, Maine and launched operations in Shanghai, China. In October 2021, JAX acquired four additional fully-outfitted mouse facilities in Japan, expanding its workforce to nearly 3,000 people and firmly establishing its presence on the global stage.

In November 2021, the Laboratory welcomed Lon Cardon as its new president and CEO. Building upon its legacy, JAX is now embarking on an ambitious five-year strategic plan that emphasizes the combined power of mouse models, human cellular models and data science to bring about transformative biomedical advancements. As JAX continues to expand its research, resources, products, services and educational offerings, it stands poised to make a truly significant impact on the future of human health.