Besides raising three children together, Dottie was Don’s partner in every aspect of his professional life, from working in the laboratory to editing manuscripts and administering his research program.
—Fred Appelbaum, MD
Dorothy “Dottie” Thomas, wife and research partner to 1990 Nobel laureate E. Donnall Thomas, MD, died Friday, January 9, at her home near Seattle. She was 92. Dr. Donnall Thomas, Pioneer of the Bone Marrow Transplant and former Director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, preceded Mrs. Thomas in death on October 20, 2012, also at age 92.
Dr. and Mrs. Thomas formed the core of a team that proved bone marrow transplantation could cure leukemias and other blood cancers, work that spanned several decades.
“Dottie’s life had a profound impact, not just on those who knew her personally, but also countless patients,” said Fred Hutchinson President and Director Gary Gilliland, MD, PhD.1 “She and Don were amazing together in both what they accomplished and the way they cared for each other. Now their legacy continues through the many whose lives have been saved by bone marrow transplant and those who will be saved in the future. Dottie truly helped change the future of medicine. All of us at Fred Hutchinson are part of her legacy.”
Dottie Thomas, known as “the mother of bone marrow transplantation,” may have gotten the name from the late George Santos, MD, a bone marrow transplantation expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and a professional colleague. “If Dr. Thomas is the father of bone marrow transplantation, then Dottie Thomas is the mother,” he once said.
Partnership in Love and Work
A snowball to the face during a rare Texas snowfall in 1940 precipitated a partnership in love and work between Dr. Thomas and the former Dorothy Martin that spanned 70 years.
In an interview with The ASCO Post in 2012, Dr. Thomas said, “A young student named Dorothy Martin appealed to me greatly and we hit it off, literally. During a freak snowstorm in Austin, I was leaving my shift at the dorm dining room and pow! a snowball smacked me in the head. I turned and there was Dottie, smiling. We married 2 years later [December 1942],” Dr. Thomas said, adding that Dottie would work with him in the lab throughout his career.
Mrs. Thomas was a journalism major in college when, in March 1943, Don was admitted to Harvard University Medical School under a U.S. Army program. Mrs. Thomas got a job as a secretary with the Navy while Dr. Thomas attended medical school.
“Dottie and I talked it over, and we decided that if we were going to spend time together, which it turned out we liked to do, that she probably ought to change her profession,” Don told The Seattle Times in a 1999 interview. “She’d taken a lot of science in her time in school, much more than most journalists. She liked science.”
Mrs. Thomas left her Navy job and enrolled in the medical technology training program at New England Deaconess Hospital. “Because Dottie was a hematology technician, we used to look at smears and bone marrow together when we were students,” Dr. Thomas said.
She worked as a medical technician for some doctors in Boston until eventually Dr. Thomas had his own laboratory, and then she began to work with him. She worked part-time when their children were small, but otherwise was in the lab full time with her husband.
“Dottie was there at Don’s side through every part of developing marrow transplantation as a science,” said Fred Appelbaum, MD, Executive Vice President and Deputy Director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Besides raising three children together, Dottie was Don’s partner in every aspect of his professional life, from working in the laboratory to editing manuscripts and administering his research program.”
Mrs. Thomas’ journalism training was a big asset to the team, her husband recalled. “In the laboratory days, my friends pointed out that Dottie, who had the library experience, would go to the library and look up all the background information for a study that we were going to do, and then she would go into the laboratory and do the work and get the data, and then with her writing skills, she’d write the paper and complete the bibliography,” Dr. Thomas had recalled. “All I would do is sign the letter to the editor.”
The couple moved to Seattle in 1963. Dr. Thomas joined Fred Hutchinson in 1975, the year its doors opened in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. For the next 15 years, Mrs. Thomas served as the Chief Administrator for the Hutchinson Clinical Research Division. Dr. Thomas stepped down from the clinical leadership position in 1990 and retired from Fred Hutchinson in 2002.
Dr. and Mrs. Thomas are survived by two sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
The family requests that people who wish to honor her do so by contributing to Dottie’s Bridge (www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2014/03/dottie-s-bridge.html). ■