Dec. 19--When Janet Rowley was accepted into the University of Chicago's medical
school in 1944, the quota for women was already filled -- three in a class of
So she had to wait a year.
Dr. Rowley made up for that early setback by becoming an internationally known
scientist whose research in the 1970s redefined cancer as a genetic disease and
led to a paradigm shift in how it is studied and treated.
An adviser to presidents and recipient of her nation's highest honors, Rowley
achieved breakthroughs that prolonged the lives of countless cancer patients.
She died Tuesday at age 88 at her Hyde Park home from complications of ovarian
"She was a pioneer in the field because, at that time, there was a big divide
between what people thought caused cancer," said Dr. Funmi Olopade, director of
the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago. "She was
able to show that genetic changes were defining specific types of cancers and it
was these genetic abnormalities that were really the trigger to explaining why
cancer behaved the way it behaved."
Rowley graduated from medical school in 1948 at age 23. The next day she married
fellow medical student Donald Rowley, who became a professor of pathology at the
U. of C.. For many years while raising four sons, Rowley worked three days a
week, including at a Chicago clinic for children with Down syndrome, a genetic
disorder caused by an extra chromosome.
Her interest in chromosomes continued in the 1960s, when she traveled to Oxford
University to learn new ways to analyze them, according to U. of C. officials.
Back in Chicago, a U. of C. colleague gave Rowley some laboratory space, a
microscope and a salary of $5,000 a year and encouraged her to study the
chromosomes of leukemia patients.
Rowley's pivotal discovery came during one of her "off days" in 1972, while
poring through images of chromosomes that she had spread out on the family
At the time, scientists were befuddled by the relationship between genes and
cancer, unsure why patients with a particular leukemia displayed one abnormally
short chromosome -- a threadlike structure that carries genetic information.
Rowley realized that the truncated chromosome was not just missing genetic
material but had, in fact, swapped material with another chromosome. It was that
rearrangement that led to a deadly chain of events ending in chronic myeloid
leukemia, an uncommon disease that affects about 5,000 people annually in the
It was the first time cancer had been linked to such a chromosomal
Pinpointing the cause of the cancer eventually allowed for the development of a
drug known as Gleevec, which stops the growth of cancer cells. Most patients
with chronic myeloid leukemia, who previously had a median survival time of
three to four years, now are likely to live out their normal life spans,
according to Dr. Richard Larson, a professor of medicine at the University of
Chicago, who equated Rowley's discoveries about cancer to finding the Rosetta
"Her discoveries allowed translation to better clinical outcomes," Larson said.
"It had tremendous implications in terms of new drug development that really
targets these specific mutations and that has a tremendous impact on patients
and their survival."
Scientists now look for key genetic mutations in every cancer to design
"We used to talk about lung cancer; now we talk about this particular type of
lung cancer with this particular genetic mutation," Olopade said. "She was the
one who defined that paradigm: Go after the genetic alteration in the cancer
cells and then you will find a way to find the right drug for the patient."
Rowley, whose maiden name was Davison, was born April 5, 1925, in New York City.
Her parents, who had both graduated from U. of C., moved back to Chicago when
Rowley was 2 years old.
One of her sons, David Rowley, a geologist at the U. of C., said his mother
worked "immensely hard."
"None of us can quite figure out how she did it," David Rowley said. "She worked
until 11 p.m. or later at night ... yet if you wanted to do something, wanted to
meet up with her, she would make the time."
Rowley's work earned her the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest
scientific honor, in 1998, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's
highest civilian honor, in 2009.
Rowley also served on President Jimmy Carter's National Cancer Advisory Board
and President George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics. A public
opponent of the restrictions Bush placed upon federally funded stem-cell
research, Rowley was invited to stand over President Barack Obama's shoulder as
he signed an order repealing the limitations in 2009, U. of C. officials said.
In December 2010, David Rowley said, his mother called her family to their
cottage in Indiana and told them she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
When she had surgery the following month, she had the biopsies given to
scientists at U. of C. for research. When other samples were taken later, she
had those sent along as well.
"She approached her cancer as a scientist," David Rowley said. "Even in death,
she had arranged to have an autopsy done so that her colleagues could actually
learn about her disease."
Until this past fall, she was still biking to work at her U. of C. laboratory.
Rowley is survived by three of her four sons, David, Robert and Roger, and five
grandchildren. Her husband died in February. Her eldest son, Donald, died in
A memorial service at the U. of C. is being planned.
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
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