Making important advances in cancer research these days takes well-equipped labs with lots of expensive equipment. But back in the early 1970s, physician Janet Davison Rowley made a major discovery—for which she was named, on 16 April, one of the three winners of the 2013 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research—while working in her own home.
Honored for discovering "the first consistent chromosome translocation in any human cancer," according to Albany Medical College, the 88-year-old Rowley is still a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Her finding provided one of the first indications that chromosome abnormalities could play a role in cancer. The idea was so new at the time that Nature published the "landmark paper" (in Albany Medical College’s words) only after Rowley had received a preliminary rejection from Nature and also from The New England Journal of Medicine.
"I was working from photographs. You see the chromosomes under the microscope and you take a photograph of them and you analyze and cut them out and line them up to see how each pair compares. My children used to say I was playing with paper dolls." —Janet Rowley
A mother of four, Rowley worked part-time when her children were young, doing research first as a research associate and then an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. With her children at school, "I could just sit at home and have it be quiet and concentrate," she told the Chicago Tribune. "I was working from photographs. You see the chromosomes under the microscope and you take a photograph of them and you analyze and cut them out and line them up to see how each pair compares. My children used to say I was playing with paper dolls."
Spending her share of the $500,000 Albany prize for the discovery "is no problem," she said in the Tribune, because "I have grandchildren in college." Rowley’s numerous other honors include the National Medal of Science and the Lasker Award.