Janet L. Rowley, MD, Matriarch of Modern Cancer Genetics, Dies at Age 88


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Janet L. Rowley, MD

Awards and accolades do not define her legacy. Rather, it is the huge footprint she left on the science of cancer genetics and the role model she served as for those who continued her work in the field.

Dr. Janet L. Rowley’s groundbreaking research in the translocation of genetic material bucked scientific convention and heralded a new understanding that cancer is indeed a genetic disease. Her research was largely responsible for the discoveries that led to the development of the targeted cancer therapies used today.

A powerful advocate for cancer research, she also built a strong relationship between the scientific community and those at the forefront of public policy. Dr. Rowley stood next to President Barack Obama in 2009, when he lifted the federal moratorium on funding for stem cell research; later that year, she would return to the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dr. Rowley died on December 17, 2013.

Academic Upbringing

Dr. Rowley was born in New York on April 5, 1925, the only child of two Ivy League–educated parents, both of whom were teachers at the high school and college levels. At age 2, she moved with her family to Chicago. Reared in an intensely academic environment, Dr. Rowley was an earnest student and an avid reader.

Granted a scholarship at the University of Chicago, she finished her last 2 years of high school and first 2 years of college in an advanced placement program. She remained at the University of Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1946, and a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1948. She married Dr. Donald Adams Rowley the day after graduation from medical school.

At the time Dr. Rowley entered the University of Chicago medical school, the quota for women was 3 in a class of 65 medical students. The quota was filled for the class she wanted to enter, so she had to wait another 9 months. “This was not such a hardship because I still entered medical school when I had just turned 20,” commented Dr. Rowley in a National Library of Medicine profile.

An Accidental Scientist

She would spend the next 20 years working part-time, as she reared her four sons. For much of the late 1950s, Dr. Rowley had worked part-time at the Cook County Hospital clinic for mentally handicapped children. Then, in 1961, she went with her husband to England, where he went on sabbatical; it would prove to be a pivotal point in Dr. Rowley’s career.

“I needed something to do for the year we’d be in England. Because of my work with retarded children, I was interested in inherited diseases. A friend arranged an introduction to Laszlo Lajtha, a hematologist in Oxford who was doing groundbreaking work on the pattern of replication of bone marrow cells. Lajtha allowed me to work in his lab to extend his study of the replication of chromosomes and learn more about the emerging field of cytogenetics,” Dr. Rowley said in a 2011 New York Times interview.

Prior to her work with Dr. Lajtha, Dr. Rowley had been a practicing medical doctor, but she enjoyed the laboratory experience so much that upon returning to the University of Chicago the next year, genetic research would become her life’s work. She became an Associate Professor in 1969, and a full Professor in 1977.

During the 1970s, Dr. Rowley demonstrated that the abnormal Philadelphia chromosome implicated in certain types of leukemia was involved in a translocation with chromosome 9 in some cases. She also identified a translocation between chromosomes 9 and 21 in myeloblastic leukemia. Going against the science establishment’s view that genetics had little role in causing cancer, she published her findings and argued that specific translocations caused specific cancers. Resistance eventually gave way to praise, and by 1990, more than 70 translocations had been identified across a host of cancers.

Celebrated Every Aspect of Life

In 1984, Dr. Rowley was made the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, a position she held for the remainder of her career. In 1998, she was one of three American scientists honored with the Lasker Award for her work on translocation.

The author of hundreds of papers and book chapters, she also gave generously of her time to serve on public scientific advisory committees, including the National Cancer Advisory Board, the President’s Council on Bioethics, the National Human Genome Research Institute Board of Scientific Counselors, and the National Advisory Council on Human Genome Research.

Awards and accolades, however, do not define her legacy. Rather, it is the huge footprint she left on the science of cancer genetics and the role model she served as for those who continued her work in the field.

Dr. Rowley will also be remembered as a person who celebrated every aspect of life. Outside of the lab, she kept on gardening, bicycling, skiing, swimming, and sailing well into her 80s. And despite the fame that followed her indelible contributions to genetic cancer that translated into lifesaving agents, she was simply a nice person to be around.

A 2011 Time’s interview highlighted one of her most endearing of human qualities: humility.  She was asked about her work that identified the Philadelphia chromosome’s translocation with chromosome 9, which served as one of the giant steps in developing leukemia treatments. She replied, “Looking down a microscope at banded chromosomes is not rocket science. If I hadn’t found it, someone else would.”■

In Memoriam

Janet L. Rowley, MD

April 5, 1925 – December 17, 2013



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