Janet Rowley dies at 88; scientist pinpointed genetic cause of leukemia

Dr. Janet Rowley's studies in genetics led to significantly better ways to diagnose and treat leukemia and other cancers.
(University of Chicago photo)

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 65.

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 advisor 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 home in the Chicago suburb of Hyde Park from complications of ovarian cancer.


“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 university. 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.

Back home, a University of Chicago 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 dinner table.

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 United States.

It was the first time cancer had been linked to such a chromosomal rearrangement.


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 Stone.

“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 precision treatment.

“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 the University of Chicago, moved back to Illinois when Rowley was 2 years old.

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 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 on federally funded stem-cell research, Rowley was invited to stand over President Obama’s shoulder as he signed an order repealing the limitations in 2009, university officials said.

Until this last fall, she was still biking to work at her University of Chicago 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 1983.

Dizikes writes for the Chicago Tribune.