U of C prof awarded Medal of Freedom

Janet Rowley | Credit: University of Chicago

A groundbreaking human geneticist from the University of Chicago has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House announced today.

President Barack Obama will bestow the award on U of C human geneticist Dr. Janet Rowley and 16 other individuals.

"Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way," Obama said in a press release.

Rowley uncovered the role of chromosomal abnormalities, or translocations, in leukemia and lymphomas, shedding new light on the role genetics plays in cancer and revolutionizing how the disease is viewed and treated.

Her findings tracked specific translocations and showed that certain chromosomal abnormalities caused certain types of cancer. Rowley made those findings public in 1970s.

There was some initial skepticism to her findings but by 1990 many translocations had been identified by the scientific community in relation to different cancers--cementing the validity of Rowley's research.

The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor and recognizes "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Other recipients of the award affiliated with the University of Chicago are economists Gary Becker and Milton Friedman, scientist James Watson, and historians Hanna Gray and John Hope Franklin.

The Medal of Freedom isn't the only honor bestowed upon Rowley by a U.S. president. President Bill Clinton awarded her the nation's highest scientific honor -- the National Medal of Science, in 1999.

Rowley, an only child, was born in New York City in 1925, to Hurford and Ethel Davison. Her father held a master of business administration from Harvard's business school, and her mother graduated with a master's in education from Columbia University.

Rowley was an exceptional student growing up, and at the age of 15 she received a scholarship to study at U of C in an advanced placement program. She earned two undergraduate degrees and a medical degree from the university.

She began her career working for Maryland's Department of Public Health. Four years later she accepted a research position with a Chicago clinic for children with developmental disabilities. Rowley also worked at the University of Illinois' school of medicine, teaching neurology.

Rowley returned to U of C in 1962, following a year studying patterns of DNA replication in human chromosomes. She worked as a research associate in U of C's Department of Hematology before becoming an associate professor in 1969, and reaching full professor status in 1977.

She was made the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago in 1984, and still holds the position, while continuing her research at U of C.