Professor earns White House accolades for cancer research “hobby”

Hyde Parkers met at the White House when Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a U of C genetics prof.

By Stacey Kirkpatrick

Professor Janet Rowley (B.A. ’44, B.S. ’46, M.D. ’48) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, last month at a White House ceremony. Rowley was recognized for her breakthrough work on genetic factors involved in leukemia.

“Her work has proven enormously influential to researchers worldwide who have used her discovery to identify genes that cause fatal cancers and to develop targeted therapies that have revolutionized cancer care,” the award’s citation said.

In 1972, then a part-time researcher, Rowley used the latest genetic technology to compare her patient’s chromosomes. “I could see what chromosome was abnormal in each [leukemia] patient and then whether the same chromosome was abnormal in different patients,” Rowley said.

She proved that the disease was caused when parts of some chromosomes switched places with others, bucking conventional wisdom. Researchers now use that knowledge to hunt for genes that cause other types of fatal cancer.

Rowley was initially shocked when she received a phone call announcing her award. “I was just dumbfounded,” she said. Her accomplishments in cytogenetics, or the study of whole chromosomes, had already been recognized in 1999 when she was awarded the National Medal of Science, so she wondered, “Why recognize them again?”

She said the ceremony was “extremely impressive.” Rowley watched as the other recipients, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, physicist Stephen Hawking, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a proxy for late Senator Ted Kennedy, stood up to receive their medals. “When it was my turn,” she said, “I was so overwhelmed.”

The recipients later assembled in a nearby room for a photo op. When President Obama and his wife entered, Rowley said, they acknowledged each other as fellow Hyde Parkers. “It was a very warm experience,” she said.

Rowley came to the U of C when she was 15, and received three degrees by the time she was 23. She married a U of C doctor the day after she graduated and was soon raising a family of six. She devoted most of her time to her family, working part-time in clinics. Her discovery in 1972, sitting at her kitchen table, led to a decades-long career in research.

“All of us have been touched in some way by cancer, including my family—and so we can all be thankful that what began as a hobby became a life’s work for Janet,” Obama said.

Rowley is no stranger to presidential politics. She was present when Obama signed an executive order in March allowing the use of stem cells in research, and she served on a bioethics committee for former President George W. Bush.

Rowley is direct in her criticism of the former president.

“Clearly Bush overstepped the boundary when he distorted scientific evidence for political purposes. Making critical political judgments based on flawed science is stupid,” she said. Nonetheless, “although we had very different philosophies, we were almost always kind to one another and avoided getting personal in debates.”

The general public, as well as heads of state, have taken notice of Rowley.

“The girl at the check-out counter at Hyde Park Produce asked if I wasn’t the person she had seen on television,” Rowley said. She’s also been asked for autograph many times by e-mail, and by students and professors at scientific conferences.

Rowley is currently in South Korea as a visiting professor at Kyungpook University in Daegu. She was invited by the Korean government as part of a program to improve research and education at Korean universities.