December 10, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 6

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    [janet davison rowley]  
    Janet Davison Rowley, M.D.

    Rowley receives national science medal

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Janet Davison Rowley, M.D., the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology at the University Medical Center, has been selected to receive the National Medal of Science for 1998, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

    The Medal is awarded each year by a distinguished, presidential-appointed committee of outstanding scientists and engineers from a variety of scientific disciplines.

    Rowley will share the award, often described as “America’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize,” with eight other leaders in the biological, physical and social sciences, including former Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, now at Harvard University. Rowley is the eighth 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.”

    According to a statement from the National Science Foundation: “The individuals named to the nation’s highest scientific honor have had wide-ranging impact on social policy, cancer research, materials science, and greatly extended knowledge of our Earth and the solar systems. Their theoretical achievements also led to many practical applications.”

    “These are superstars in their respective fields,” said Rita Colwell, director of the NSF. “They’ve contributed a lifetime of stunning discoveries. We can only recognize them with a science medal once, but we applaud them daily for their continual contributions to humankind, to the reservoir of scientific knowledge and for the impact they have on the students they mentor and educate along the way. Their work betters science as a whole and betters our daily lives in ways we often take for granted.”

    Rowley is being honored, reads 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 has collected several honors this fall. She received the coveted Lasker Award–– also referred to as “America’s Nobels”––in September and was named a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in October.

    “Although I try not to take most of these things too seriously,” she noted, “this is quite exciting. I couldn’t sleep the night after I was told of it,” she said of this national honor.

    Rowley, 73, earned her B.S. (1946) and M.D. (1948) and has spent her entire professional career at Chicago, where she has meticulously demonstrated that specific types of cancer are caused by specific alterations of chromosomes.

    (For a complete description of Rowley’s research and the history of her career, see The University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol. 18, No. 1, Oct. 1, 1998 issue).

    Recently, using spectral karyotyping, Rowley is trying to identify all of the complex changes that occur in cancer cells. In addition, she and her colleagues are investigating the mechanisms of chromosome rearrangement by focusing on a leukemia-causing chromosome translocation that is seen only in patients previously treated with particular drugs.

    Rowley emphasizes that her discoveries depended heavily on the help of many colleagues, both those taking care of the patients and those in pathology who helped to establish a precise diagnosis.

    The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is administered by the NSF. It honors individuals who have significantly advanced knowledge in the fields of behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and physics. A 12-member presidential committee reviews nominations for the annual awards.

    Including this year’s recipients, the Medal of Science now has been awarded to 362 leading U.S. scientists and engineers.