The University of Chicago Medical School was impressed enough with Rowley that it accepted her as a student. The only problem: in 1944, the school had room for 65 students, and all three of the spots reserved for women were already taken, so she had to wait until 1945. She waited. Rowley graduated in 1948, at 23, and became a geneticist. Her first work was with Down Syndrome children — the syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome. She thought that the key to other diseases might be in our chromosomes, and worked to understand and study them more. Her breakthrough came in the 1970s, when she was the first scientist to discover that a rearrangement in chromosomes (“translocation”) was responsible for some forms of cancer — including the one she was looking at, chronic myeloid leukemia, a relatively rare form of leukemia. She argued that chromosomal translocation is likely responsible for many types of cancer.
“At that time, there was a big divide between what people thought caused cancer,” explains 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.” The discovery led to better treatments that extended the lives of millions of cancer patients, because the genetics of cancer is key to finding better treatments. “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.” Within 20 years, following Rowley’s paradigm, at least 90 cancers were found to be caused by translocation. Rowley was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1998, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She served on George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics — and publicly opposed his restrictions on stem cell research. She was invited to stand with President Barack Obama when he signed an Executive Order repealing the restrictions in 2009. Dr. Rowley continued to do research at the University of Chicago until recently. She died at home on December 17 — from ovarian cancer. She was 88.