Janet Rowley, MD, receives prestigious National Medal of Science at White House ceremony

Janet Rowley, MD, receives prestigious National Medal of Science at White House ceremony

April 27, 1999

Janet Davison Rowley, MD, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, received the National Medal of Science--the nation's highest scientific honor--in a ceremony today at the White House. The Medal is awarded each year by a committee of outstanding scientists and engineers.

Rowley shares the award, often described as "America's equivalent of the Nobel Prize," with eight other leaders in the biological, physical, and social sciences. She is the eighth University of Chicago faculty member to win the award while on staff.

President Bill Clinton praised the recipients for "their creativity, resolve, and a restless spirit of innovation to ensure continued U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge."

"This is an outstanding group of people," said Rita Colwell, director of NSF. "Their vast contributions to human health, social policy, technological breakthroughs and to knowledge of how our Earth connects to the Universe, are nothing short of phenomenal. They have inspired generations of scientists to continue the quest for extended knowledge in these individual fields. And they've helped establish whole new fields of interdisciplinary research, from which we see daily the rapidly increasing pace of discovery."

Rowley is being honored, says the citation: "For revolutionizing cancer research, diagnosis and treatment through her discovery of chromosomal translocations in cancer, and in her pioneering work on the relationship of prior treatment to recurring chromosome abnormalities, for epitomizing the 'bench to bedside' philosophy in her application of basic discoveries to clinical medicine, and for her leadership nationally and internationally in the oncology and biomedical communities."

"It is not only a fantastic honor to be awarded the National Medal of Science," said Rowley, "but receipt of this award also recognizes the critical importance of chromosomal (genetic) changes in cancer."

Rowley, 74, was educated and has spent her entire professional career at the University of Chicago, where she has meticulously demonstrated that specific types of cancer are caused by specific alterations of chromosomes.

A "whiz kid," who entered the University through the Four-Year College in 1940 at the age of 15, Rowley graduated from medical school--one of six women in her class--in December 1948, at age 23. Although she received her medical license in 1951, Rowley chose to spend the next 24 years working only two or three days a week, devoting most of her time to her children.

So it was only fitting that she made her first big discovery at home. After learning the latest staining techniques for illuminating the different stripes or "bands" on chromosomes, Rowley photographed the chromosomes of leukemia patients using the fluorescence microscope and took the pictures home to ponder. Her children often teased her about her "puzzles" as she sat at their dining-room table, cutting each chromosome out of the photographs and carefully arranging them in pairs.

In early 1972, while sorting out her photos of chromosomes, Rowley noticed that the chromosomes of a patient with acute myelogenous leukemia had two abnormalities. Chromosomes 8 and 21 appeared to have made a trade; part of 21 had broken off and moved to chromosome 8, and part of 8 had moved to chromosome 21--an exchange that was called a "translocation." When she looked again at other patients with this same kind of AML, she often saw the same process, sometimes with chromosomes 8 and 21 and sometimes involving two other chromosomes.

When Rowley began to look at the chromosomes of patients with a different type of leukemia, she found a slightly different version. The end of chromosome 22 wasn't missing; it had been exchanged for a piece of chromosome 9.

Rowley and colleagues subsequently identified several other chromosome translocations that were characteristic of specific malignancies, including a gene involved in most infant leukemias. Other scientists, from around the world, have used the translocations as road maps to narrow the search for different genes that were disrupted by chromosome damage, thus beginning the current era of cancer genetics--an approach that promises to dominate the field for the coming decades.

Rowley insists that her discoveries depended heavily on the help of many others--scientific colleagues, the oncologists taking care of the patients, the pathologists who helped to establish a precise diagnosis, and most of all the patients.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is administered by NSF. It is bestowed annually by the President of the United States on a select group of individuals deserving of special recognition for their outstanding contributions in one of the following fields: biology, geology, mathematics, physics, social, behavioral and economic sciences, and engineering. President John F Kennedy awarded the first Medal of Science in 1962 to the late Theodore Von Karman, professor emeritus, California Institute of Technology.

A total of 362 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Science including such distinguished Chicago scientists as Konrad Bloch, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Milton Friedman, Leon Lederman, Eugene Parker, Roger Sperry, George Stigler, Harold Urey, James Watson, William Julius Wilson, Sewall Wright and Antoni Zygmund.

The National Science & Technology Medals Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, established a public-private partnership to fund activities that support the awarding of both national medals. One of this foundation's missions is to inspire America's youth to pursue excellence in science and technology by promoting the medal recipients as role models The Foundation also strives to broaden public understanding of the link between scientific and technological excellence and economic prosperity, job creation and a higher standard of living.