Remembering Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

By HARRY C. EDWARDS | Published: OCTOBER 22, 2012

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who pioneered bone-marrow transplantation to cure leukemias and other blood cancers, died Saturday. His groundbreaking work, for which he won the Noble Prize in 1990, has benefited hundreds of thousands of people around the world and is considered among the greatest success stories in cancer treatment. Learn more about Dr. Thomas’ career through these various stories and remembrances:

From The New York Times: “Many physicians abandoned the approach, believing that bone marrow transplantation would never be safe enough to be practical. Dr. Thomas persevered, despite numerous failures and the criticism that he was exposing his patients to undue risks.”

From The Seattle Times“In the 1950s, Dr. Thomas performed the first successful bone-marrow transplant between identical twins, then worked for more than a decade to achieve that result in siblings who were not twins. In the late ’70s, he led a team at the Fred Hutchinson Center that achieved success for people who were not related.”

From Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center“At first I thought there was something wrong at the hospital, but then he was saying something about it just being announced — I had won the Nobel Prize,” says Thomas, whose four decades of bone marrow transplantation research was recognized by the award.

From the Remembrance Book at the Hutchinson CenterMy son John is 22 years post bone marrow transplant. He was 17 years old when he had a transplant. He is now a Firefighter/Paramedic in Jacksonville, Florida. Thank you for your perseverance in Bone Marrow Transplant Research and for giving me my son. Lynn Johnson.

E. Donnall Thomas, M.D, 1990 Nobel Laureate


Pioneering bone marrow transplants to cure leukemia

There was a time when a leukemia diagnosis was a death sentence. Chances of survival were little more than zero.

But thanks to a team of pioneering scientists led by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, tens of thousands of leukemia patients now lead productive lives.

Laboring in the basement of temporary facilities in Seattle four decades ago, Thomas sought to do what others were convinced would never work. He ventured to cure leukemia and other cancers of the blood by destroying a patient’s diseased bone marrow with near-lethal doses of radiation and chemotherapy and then rescuing the patient by transplanting healthy marrow. The goal: to establish a fully functioning and cancer-free blood and immune system.

Today, the success of bone-marrow transplantation stands among the world’s most significant medical advances. The technique has transformed leukemia and related cancers, once thought incurable, into highly treatable diseases with survival rates as high as 90 percent.

A medical visionary, Thomas received the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for this lifesaving work.

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