Prominent leukemia researcher Janet Rowley will visit NIU Oct. 6 to speak on her life, work

Dr. Janet Rowley
Dr. Janet Rowley

Dr. Janet Rowley, a highly awarded professor of hematology and oncology in the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago,will visit the NIU campus Thursday, Oct. 6, to give a seminar on her life and work.

Rowley will speak at 3:30 p.m. in the Terwilliger Auditorium of Montgomery Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

“Dr. Rowley is clearly a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine,” said Barrie Bode, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at NIU. “She is not only a leading figure in the biology research community, but an inspiration to students, especially women, in all areas of study.”

In the 1970s, Rowley identified a genetic “translocation” in leukemia, beginning a new understanding of cancer.

Translocation is the process by which a piece of one chromosome breaks off and joins another chromosome, causing a cancer-forming mutation. This demonstrated that mutations can determine the form of cancer, which opened the door to the development of drugs directed at genetic abnormalities. This paradigm still drives cancer research today, and for her pioneering contributions, Rowley has been referred to as “The Matriarch of Modern Cancer Genetics.”

Rowley combined high intelligence with persistence and persuasion. Her discovery that chromosome abnormalities were mechanistically involved in cancer was met with some resistance by the medical community at first. She has said that she became “a kind of missionary,” stressing the importance of chromosome abnormalities. Ultimately, her work has proven immensely influential, and by 1990 over seventy translocations had been identified across different cancers.

To say her life story is inspiring is an understatement.

Born in 1925, she completed high school and her first two years of college by age 19. She was required to wait for nine months before entering medical school at the University of Chicago, as in 1944 the quota for women was three in a class of 65 medical students. She began her studies at age 20, and completed her medical degree at 23. She married Donald Adams Rowley, also a physician, the day after graduating from medical school.

For the next 20 years, she balanced family life with her career by working part-time as she raised four sons. She began full-time research when the youngest was 12.

A broad career history includes working as attending physician at the Infant and Prenatal Clinics in the Department of Public Health, Montgomery County, Maryland, a research post at Chicago’s Dr. Julian Levinson Foundation, a clinic for children with developmental disabilities, and a teacher of neurology at the University Illinois School of Medicine.

She returned to the University of Chicago as a research associate in 1962, and proceeded to become an associate professor in 1969 and a full professor in 1977. In 1984, Rowley was made the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, a position she still holds, where her work on cancers of the blood continue.

She also has had an impact on the relationship between medical research and public policy, serving on the President’s Council on Bioethics, established by President George W. Bush in 2001.

President Barack Obama presents Dr. Janet Rowley with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Barack Obama presents Dr. Janet Rowley with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Among her numerous honors, Rowley was awarded the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She also received the Dorothy P. Landon-AACR Prize for Translational Cancer Research in 2005 and the 1998 Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award. She is a member of numerous honorary societies including the National Academy of Sciences, and holds honorary doctorate degrees from 11 institutions. She has published more than 400 articles.

None of the acclaim has altered her humble, group research understanding of innovation. She considers it all “a recognition, not of me, but of our research.”

Her main concern has been to make a contribution to society, and her greatest achievement to that end is the development of the drug, Gleevac.

“I have been very fortunate in spending my life having fun doing research that has had a profound impact on patients with a serious illness,” Rowley said.

For more information about the Oct. 6 event, call (815) 753-1753.

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