Elwood Jensen dies at 92; his research spurred cancer treatments

Elwood Jensen, a medical researcher whose ground-breaking work in the field of endocrinology and breast cancer led to revolutionary and life-saving treatments, died of complications from pneumonia on Dec. 16 in suburban Cincinnati, the University of Cincinnati announced. He was 92.

He was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for his discovery of hormone receptors while at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Chicago, Jensen focused on the impact that breast tissue had on estrogen while most other researchers analyzed how the hormone influenced tissue. At the time, the standard treatment for breast cancer was to remove the ovaries or adrenal glands, but after creating a way to radioactively tag estrogen, Jensen found that only a third of breast tumors carry estrogen receptors.

The discovery allows doctors today to identify which patients will respond to anti-estrogen therapy and which need chemotherapy or radiation. The finding has helped them treat breast, thyroid and prostate cancer and is credited with saving or prolonging more than 100,000 lives a year.


His discovery of estrogen receptors “is beyond doubt one of the major achievements in biochemical endocrinology of our time,” Gene DeSombre, a University of Chicago professor emeritus who worked with Jensen, said in a statement.

When Jensen received the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2004, the Lasker Institute said he had “transformed the treatment of breast cancer patients.”

Dr. Sohaib Khan, a professor of cancer biology at Cincinnati and a friend, said Jensen’s greatest disappointment was not winning the Nobel, a fact he brought up during their last conversation about a week before his death.

“He was talking about how fortunate he was to live a life like he has,” Khan said. “But one qualm he had was that he did not get the Nobel Prize. He felt pretty strongly that he really deserved it, and most people in the field think exactly the same way.”


Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Elwood Vernon Jensen was born Jan. 13, 1920, in Fargo, N.D., and grew up in Springfield, Ohio.

He majored in chemistry at what is now Wittenberg University in Ohio and received his doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Chicago.

After he was required to retire from the University of Chicago at age 70, he did research with other organizations, including the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. For the last 10 years, Jensen was a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s department of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy.

While Khan called Jensen’s work “monumental,” he described the man as down-to-earth, funny and ever ready to share a story about his days as a college boxer or how he had climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps in 1947.

Survivors include his second wife, Hiltrud, known as Peggy; a son; and a daughter. His first wife, Mary, died in 1982.