News cancer
Jan 09

Janet D. Rowley,  MD 1925 - 2013

Last month we lost a gifted scientist, an insightful researcher and an exceptional teacher in Janet Rowley, MD, who died on December 17th from complications of ovarian cancer.  We also lost a great friend to the Cancer Research Foundation and an extraordinary human being.

Dr. Rowley was the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago. She was a pioneer in cancer research and in the 1970s, her work on abnormalities in the chromosomes of cancer patients proved that cancer was a genetic disease.  Her discoveries paved the way for much of the work currently being done in cancer genomics, and her work in translocations between chromosomes in leukemia has led to many important cancer therapies, including the development of imatinib (Gleevec) which remains one of the most successful cancer therapies today.

Dr. Rowley's accomplishments in life were as significant as her work in the lab.  In 1948, at only 23 years old, Dr. Rowley graduated from the University of Chicago Medical School as one of four women in her class.   She then married her classmate Donald Rowley, MD and spent the better part of the next twenty years raising her sons and working part-time as a physician.  In the 1960s Dr. Rowley turned her attention to leukemia and the relatively new ability to stain and study human chromosomes. In 1972, Janet Rowley made her first big discovery of abnormalities in the chromosomes of leukemia sufferers.  Her work proved that some cancers were linked to genetic changes, an idea that was completely counter to the scientific thinking of the time. The CRF is proud to have been a supporter of Dr. Rowley's work in the 1970s; her independent thinking and perseverance is a perfect example of how novel ideas can lead to transformational events in cancer research.

The importance of Doctor Rowley's work and discoveries won her international recognition as well as a number of high profile awards, including the Lasker Award, a lifetime achievement award from the American Association for Cancer Research and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  She had honorary degrees from 14 institutions, including Oxford, Yale and Dartmouth, and served four sitting US presidents in scientific advisory roles.

Perhaps Dr. Rowley's greatest legacy is the large group of talented, driven and innovative scientists who she mentored throughout her career.  Dr. Rowley was a wonderful advisor and a strong advocate for young scientists, especially women. She led by example, finding her own balance between work and home and making a wonderful case for a long ranging career in science. The number of researchers and doctors she has encouraged and helped to become leaders in cancer science is truly inspiring.  Many of them have followed in her footsteps and continue to build on her discoveries in leukemia and cancer genomics.

Dr. Rowley was also a great believer in the important of funding early stage scientists and the need for foundations such as the CRF to support new science.

"The most difficult time in the career of a beginning young scientist is the first few years. One has no 'track record' just when the need for money to hire a technician to help with experiments, to buy supplies and equipment, is the greatest. "


Dr. Rowley was always willing to help the CRF as it pursued its mission to fund early stage researchers and new ideas in cancer science towards the hope of supporting game changing moments in cancer research.  She was an inspirational leader in cancer science and has even been referred to as the "The Matriarch of Modern Cancer Genetics." But she was also a warm and open person, always quick to support a fellow researcher and to share her accolades with every member of her laboratory staff.  She will be missed by many, including all of us at the Cancer Research Foundation.