For centuries the thymus has remained a mysterious organ with largely unknown functions. The first demonstration of its crucial role in the development of the immune system was reported in 1961, when it was found that mice thymectomized at birth had poorly developed lymphoid tissues, impaired immune reactivities, and an inordinate susceptibility to develop infections. Although thymus lymphocytes were for a long time deemed immunoincompetent, it was shown in 1967 that they could respond to antigen by proliferating to give rise to a progeny of cells which did not secrete antibody (T cells), but which had a remarkable ability to induce bone marrow cells (B cells) to become antibody formers. This was the first unequivocal demonstration of a major division of labour among mammalian lymphocytes. Tremendous progress in our understanding of the function of the thymus and of the T cells derived from it followed. Distinct T cell subsets were characterized and shown to have an essential role in initiating and regulating a variety of immune responses. The ontogenetic events which occurred during their differentiation were mapped, and this allowed studies of the selection of the T cell repertoire. The major histocompatibility complex and associated peptides were shown to govern T cell selection and antigen activation, and the antigen-specific T cell receptor and the genes which code for it were characterized. Future studies should allow some insight into how to activate T cells more effectively for vaccination purposes, and how to switch them off to prevent autoimmune reactions and to induce tolerance to transplanted tissues.