Fixation on Histology

“I Have Already Invented It!” A Tribute to James B. McCormick, M.D.

Dr. James B. McCormick – pathologist, scientist, inventor, educator, mentor, friend, and colleague! 

I was serving on the NSH Convention Planning Committee (at that time) for the 1988 NSH Convention in Louisville, KY.  The speaker for the C.F.A. Culling Memorial Lecture was going to be James B. McCormick, MD, and the title of his presentation was “100 Years of Histotechnology”.  When he began his presentation, the room went dark but then was suddenly decorated with the most intricate, sparkling, detailed, and unimaginable preparations of the 17th, 18th and 19th century!
Abraham Ypelaar, a diamond setter and merchant of Amsterdam began his profession of initially mounting sections of timber into small ivory cups for viewing.  There were precious stones, rocks and minerals, marine life all arranged with such care that resembled diamonds and works of art! There were also prepared slides from other early slide preparators of decorative arrangements and designs using diatoms, butterfly eggs and scales from insect wings.  A vase of flowers prepared from the scales of beetles!  Dr. McCormick’s presentation stirred the beginning of a new interest and focus in my histotechnology profession.  After his presentation I talked with him about these newly discovered objects of detail and he presented
me with his lavender-colored business card – James B. McCormick, MD, President and CEO of Swedish Covenant Hospital, Chicago, IL.  This business card and a telephone call led to the beginning of a life-long friendship, and in 1989 at the NSH Convention in Las Vegas the workshop, the Study and Preparation of Antique Prepared Microslides was born!


Dr. McCormick was a kind and personable man with so much interest and enthusiasm.  Although we presented other workshops along the way, this initial workshop was taught for 25 years.  It is the longest-running workshop of the same topic, the same two (2) presenters with the final workshop at the NSH Convention in Austin, TX, 2014. 

McCormick was a historian and an inventor – he always looked at the past in order to have a vision for where we needed to go into the future.  I often visited him at his office at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago where he delighted in showing me many of the laboratory inventions through patent drawings and photographs of medical instruments that he had been charged to create and develop in new technology.  He actually had a small museum in his home that reflected anything from antique microscopes, medical and scientific instruments to microscope sliders and slides. 

Prior to our meeting encounter I had already seen many of his inventions in histotechnology in my training at the University of Tennessee Medical Unit, but now I had met the man behind these “new “tools of the trade so to speak.  His inventions in histotechnology included the plastic embedding ring, the process embedding cassette, the embedding center and the cryostat, sold by Miles Laboratories, Inc. 

But not to get too far ahead in 1947 Dr. McCormick established one of his first companies known as Histoslide.  He prepared both biological and medical teaching slides for universities and medical schools.  I was able to add one of these teaching slides to my own slide collection.  Later to satisfy another need he researched and developed the much needed and improved anatomical models with removable organs.  First made out of polyvinyl chloride and then later cast out of aluminum.  Dr. McCormick’s first patent was for his design of an anatomical model with these interchangeable organs.  As he continued to research the basic methods used to prepare microscopic slides not much had changed and these methods were no longer efficient for the present-day work.  A set of plastic building blocks at Woolworth’s caught his eye and he thought “these building blocks could be used to mold liquid paraffin into a block.”  In 1957 he sold his Histoslide company and established a new company – Lab Tek – to develop a new histotechnology product line.  He expanded into histotechnology instrumentation such as slide stainers, microtomes, embedding centers and a cryostat with a unique and portable refrigeration system.  Later the Tissue Tek cryostat was developed leading the way to his many designs of the Tissue Tek instrument line.  In 1965 he sold the Tissue Tek company to Miles Laboratories Inc., remained as a research consultant and the rest is history.

As an author, historian and educator he moved forward into the history of histotechnology.  He believed that the histotechnologist would benefit from the knowledge of the history of their profession and he compiled a series of eight (8) books exhibiting this history.  This set of sought-after books was published by his company Science Heritage Ltd. known as the History of Microscopy with one book authored by himself.

 Dr. McCormick inspired me in many areas of histotechnology.  Our visits and conversations led to my desire to invent something and have a patent.  Although I never actually achieved this goal in my profession my desire was still fueled by his leadership.  I preceded to share my creative ability for a new process to prepare bone marrow biopsy specimens.  In 1995 at the NSH Convention in Buffalo, New York I was honored to receive the J. B. McCormick, MD award, one of the most prestigious awards in the NSH, presented by Dr. McCormick himself.  On stage I shared with Dr, McCormick my invention, he smiled professionally and gently replied, “I have already invented it!”  And indeed he had – he was granted over 50 patents for numerous medical and everyday inventions.  He often shared many of his ideas and new inventions with me on occasion.  We published the Turbo Flow cassette in the Journal of Histotechnology in 1999 that brought new design and flow transfer to the process of fixation, processing and embedding.  Dr. McCormick was devoted to one simple goal – to improve the quality of life by simplifying tasks that had to be performed in life motivated by the fact that a need exists.

But there is more – one of the most impressive things that I learned about Dr. McCormick was when I visited his office at the hospital in Chicago.  He was a devout family man.  There were no medical diplomas, certificates or awards decorating the walls but instead pictures of his family arranged in a specific order – and changed often to reflect their growth, beauty, and his love for them.

I have many stories that I could share but all reflect his contributions to better the histotechnology profession.  Dr. McCormick was a histotechnologist at heart and this was reflected in all that he did for medicine and our profession. 

McCormick Award presented to Peggy WenkIn the early years of the NSH he established the J. B. McCormick, MD award to be awarded to the histotechnologist annually for their true dedication and contributions to the field of histotechnology.  As Leonard Noble, former NSH Awards Chair once stated, the qualifications to be nominated and hopefully receive this award was “much, much, much”.

Dr. McCormick was always interested in my work, histotechnology training, workshops and teaching programs.  He was very supportive in many ways.  I am both thankful and appreciative of his assistance, guidance and serving as a mentor to me over the years.  We had many commonalities and were able to converse and share them.  His inspiration continues to live in my hopes and desires for our profession. 

Thank You Dr. McCormick for making our daily work, our profession and Histotechnology a profession to be proud of and exhibit our best prepared microslide as a true preparator! 

Dr. McCormick passed away on June 26, 2022 – you can read his obituary in the Chicago Tribune here.

Written by M. Lamar Jones BS, HT/HTL(ASCP)

1 comment



25 days ago

Amazing story!!!  Dr. James B. McCormick, the " Unsung Hero " I proud to read and know about this heroic professional in my life time. 
Thank you M.
Lamar Jones BS, HT/HTL(ASCP)
for your presentation such a sweet story that emphasize we, NSH families  are responsible for the sustainability of his inventions.