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Anatomy Vocab Thyme: Tasty Immunity

While recovering from a cold recently, I made myself some infusion tea which included thyme, a culinary herb long recognized for its immune benefits (see also here and here). As I looked at the container, I repeated the word “thyme” to myself, and as someone who often thinks about anatomy and physiology, I naturally thought of the word “thymus,” an organ which is also well known for its critical role in supporting the immune system.

The Thymus and Immunity

While the thymus, which sits right on top of the heart, can be classified as an endocrine organ, anatomy and physiology courses usually cover this important structure as part of the discussion on the immune system. The thymus is the subject of a memory trick related to anatomy which resulted in the official name of one of your most important immune cells – T cells (or T lymphocytes). The T stands for thymus which is where T cells mature.

Most blood cells, including B lymphocytes mature in bone marrow, and in another related memory trick, the B in B cell stands for Bone. However, T cells leave the bone marrow and travel to the thymus to gain immunocompetence – that is, the ability to recognize and fight invading pathogens in the body.

Part of the education of a T cell in the thymus includes learning how to recognize (and not attack) the body’s own cells. The journey to maturity for T cells is completed in immune organs such as the spleen and lymph nodes where they will encounter pathogens such as viruses. It is here that T cells begin to follow their true calling in life which includes combatting specific harmful organisms or helping to activate other immune cells.

An interesting fact about the thymus is that its degeneration follows a different pattern from many other major organs. While the function of most major organs starts to diminish in middle age or later, the thymus begins to degrade after puberty and its function of producing immunocompetent T cells is drastically reduced after age 40. For a person in their seventies, the thymus will have mostly degraded into a mass of fatty tissue. It isn’t clear why this degeneration occurs, but it helps to explain reduced immune function in elderly populations.

Thyme and Thymus Again

But does the thymus have anything to do with the delicious culinary herb which has a nearly identical name? I thought the names were too similar for it to be a coincidence, so I had to satisfy my curiosity. Sure enough, it turns out that through an interesting sequence of connections, the name of the thymus gland does derive from thyme and has been in use for thousands of years.

So what is the connection between thyme and the thymus gland? The thymus has somewhat of a clustered and pitted appearance, almost like a golf ball but if the pits were convex instead of concave. This reminded early (and perhaps hungry) anatomists of the appearance of a bud of a thyme plant. You can see the resemblance here.

When the thymus was named for thyme, the function of the gland wasn’t totally understood, and neither was its drastically different appearance in subjects of different ages. But by a convenient coincidence, both thyme and the thymus help to boost the body’s immune response so this memory trick basically writes itself.

Learning Anatomy Means Learning a Language

When I give consultations to new tutoring students or when students in my anatomy and physiology classes ask me for advice on how to improve their grades, I always start by mentioning that anatomy is a language and that one should approach the study of anatomy as if they were learning a new language.

The most successful strategies for studying anatomy and physiology require learning the vocabulary of the language. Prefixes, suffixes, and roots will come up over and over again, and a strong foundation in these terms will allow you not only to remember the functions and locations of structures you’ve already learned, but perhaps more importantly will also allow you to locate and describe structures you encounter for the first time.

Anything you can do to make it easier to remember terms and definitions will be helpful. The names for anatomical terms often relate to things we wouldn’t expect — in many cases it can be food or the containers used to hold it. Learning the origins of these terms can be fun and make them more memorable.

So next time you add some thyme to a tea or recipe, think about its immune benefits along with those of the gland named after it which helps to keep you healthy by stocking T cells. These immune cells can remember the identities of pathogens for the rest of your life and swiftly eliminate them from your body the next time they appear.

If you want to learn more memory tips and tricks, how to approach the study of anatomy and physiology, or discuss anything you’re having trouble understanding, feel free to contact me at or consider booking a session today.

See you next thyme.

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