Dr. E. Donnall Thomas is a giant in the medical field, the creator of bone marrow transplantation, a procedure to cure leukemias and other blood cancers .
But at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, when colleagues talk about Thomas, they don’t first mention the Nobel Prize he earned for his accomplishments. Instead, they focus on his qualities—the kinds of things that have helped shape Fred Hutch culture in the past three decades. Thomas, a founding faculty member, died Oct. 20. He was 92.
“To the world, Don Thomas will forever be known as the father of bone marrow transplantation, but to his colleagues at Fred Hutch he will be emembered as a friend, colleague, mentor and pioneer,” said Dr. Larry Corey, president and director.
“The work Don Thomas did to establish marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for
Dr. E. Donnall Thomas
Thomas joined the faculty of Fred Hutch in 1974 as its first director of medical oncology. He later became associate director and eventually director of the Center’s Clinical Research Division. He stepped down from that position at age 70 in 1990 and officially retired from Fred Hutch in 2002.
Thomas was a quiet but stubborn man, and yet that stubbornness was narrow and well focused. He believed that bone marrow transplantation could work against an unrelenting killer—when many others said it never would—and he surrounded himself with like-minded researchers, clinicians and nurses as he sought to make it happen.
He was generous with praise—a team player who understood that the best science comes through collaboration. When he received the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation, Thomas was quite explicit in praising his colleagues by name.
“It is always difficult to identify the many threads that make up the fabric of a life’s work,” he wrote in his autobiography on the Nobel website.
“I know that my philosophy and ideas have been heavily influenced by more than 20 years of daily interaction with a small group of colleagues, all of whom are now distinguished scientists in their own right.”
Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and his wife, Dottie
So, it’s easy to see why Thomas wouldn’t give up. Today, his pioneering treatment has become routine in hospital rooms across the world, and survival rates have pretty much moved from nearly zero to more than 90 percent for several blood cancers. Transplantation is about to reach a major mark: 1 million transplants around the world, with about 60,000 performed each year.
“Don quite literally wrote the book on marrow transplantation,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, director of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, and a friend and colleague. “Don was a hero. He was, by far, the most influential person in my career, and I know that many others would say the same thing.”
The sadness that many of Thomas’ colleagues have felt since his death is tempered by his legacy. Thomas’ audacity to attack a problem that others thought was a dead-end will live on through the work of Fred Hutch scientists.
Thomas’ contributions have sparked entire new fields of inquiry, including promising treatments stemming from immunotherapy research. Most recently, his colleagues have put late-stage melanoma into remission by using a person’s own immune cells to attack the cancer. Another colleague soon will begin a transplantation clinical trial to treat Crohn’s disease.
Fred Hutch researchers continue to perfect bone marrow and stem cell transplantation by making it safer and increasing survival rates. Some of this research is making it possible to offer transplantation to nearly every patient in need—an incredible accomplishment.
“His legacy to Fred Hutch cannot be overstated,” Corey said. “The success of his lifesaving cancer research built the platform for the breakthrough science that our faculty members in all disciplines continue to produce.”
This pursuit, Thomas’ pursuit, is shared by former patients.
“I clearly recall you making rounds and knowing that I gambled my life with the right man,” a former patient wrote in Thomas’ remembrance book. “A transplant for chronic myeloid leukemia in 1984 was indeed a gamble. My recent celebration of the 28th anniversary of my transplant is now tempered by your death. What a wonderful life you lived, Doctor, and how thankful I am our paths crossed. I was 24 at transplant, 52 today, and thanks to you, I too have a shot at making 92.”
Thomas didn’t want his patients to gamble on a cure. Nor do his colleagues. And that’s why the work goes on at Fred Hutch.