Working as a close research partner with her husband — medical pioneer and Nobel prizewinner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas — Dorothy “Dottie” Thomas helped establish bone-marrow transplants as a standard and successful treatment for many formerly incurable blood diseases such as leukemia.
Known as “the mother of bone-marrow transplantation,” Mrs. Thomas, 92, died Friday at her home near Seattle.
Though the necessities of her early working and family life precluded her earning a medical degree, Mrs. Thomas used her combination of scientific knowledge and management skills to support every aspect of her husband’s work and to shepherd the success of the entire transplant team at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which became the world’s first bone-marrow transplant facility.
From the earliest days of the groundbreaking research, Mrs. Thomas drew blood from patients, did lab work and edited every scientific paper her husband wrote, as well as those of the team of young medical hotshots he gathered at “The Hutch.”
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In addition, as chief administrator for The Hutch’s Clinical Research Division and the gatekeeper to her husband, she managed the people, the budgets and the schedules to keep the work on track.
Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Hutch deputy director and 36-year colleague of the Thomases, said Dr. Thomas “would not have been nearly as successful and productive had it not been for Dottie.”
By now, more than a million patients have undergone the bone-marrow treatment developed by the Thomases and their colleagues. Appelbaum estimates about 70,000 bone-marrow transplants will be performed worldwide this year, about 500 at The Hutch.
The cure rate for early-stage leukemia has risen to 80 to 90 percent, he said, while other blood diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and aplastic anemia have even higher rates.
In 2012, on Mrs. Thomas’ 90th birthday, world-renowned tenor José Carreras gave a benefit recital in her honor at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, marking the 25th anniversary of his own bone-marrow transplant at The Hutch and raising money for both The Hutch and his own leukemia research institute in his native Barcelona.
Dr. Gary Gilliland, Hutch president and director, said in a news release, “Dottie truly helped change the future of medicine.”
A fateful snowball
The former Dorothy Martin grew up in Texas, graduating early from her San Antonio high school, a whip-smart, straight-A valedictorian.
She entered the University of Texas at Austin at 16, studying journalism and planning a career as a reporter, until a snowball fight changed her life’s direction.
After a rare snowstorm on campus in the winter of 1940, the 17-year-old freshman threw a snowball that hit senior and chemistry major Don Thomas in the face.
“She claims she was throwing it at another fellow and hit me by mistake,” he told The Seattle Times in a 1999 interview. “One thing led to another and we seemed to hit it off.”
Three years later, she married Thomas and dropped out to follow him to Harvard Medical School, forming a life and work partnership that spanned 70 years until her husband’s death in 2012, also at 92.
During the lean war years in Boston, Mrs. Thomas trained as a medical technician while he got his degree.
“We had no financial support, she had to work,” Dr. Thomas told The Times. “In retrospect, it’s too bad, because she could have gone on to get her doctorate.”
In those 1999 interviews, Mrs. Thomas said that, yes, she would have loved to become a doctor herself, but “it wasn’t feasible.”
“You have to deal with the time you live in,” she said.
In a Hutch news release, Mrs. Thomas’ daughter Dr. Elaine Thomas, a physician and professor at the University of New Mexico, said her mom “had a brilliant mind and could have done anything she wanted.
“But back in those days, you stood by your man and helped him out,” the younger Dr. Thomas said. “The older I get, the more I realize how incredible she was.”
Mrs. Thomas, while also raising three children, became the chief support system for her brilliant husband’s work, though for a long time this was unpaid, to skirt nepotism rules.
Founding of The Hutch
The Thomases moved to Seattle in 1963, when he became the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Though Dr. Thomas had performed his first successful bone-marrow transplant in the 1950s, he worked mostly in the laboratory until the late ’60s, resolving issues with the experimental treatment, which took many years to be widely adopted.
His success persuaded Seattle surgeon William Hutchinson to build Dr. Thomas and his team a permanent home.
The original Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — named for William Hutchinson’s baseball-hero brother — opened in 1975 in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood and in 1993 moved to its current home on South Lake Union.
Appelbaum recalls that when as a young researcher he sent his papers to Dr. Thomas for review before submitting them for publication, they would come back with two sets of comments, with those from Dr. Thomas on one side of the paper and those from Mrs. Thomas on the other.
Her input, thanks to her journalism training, helped him with clarity of expression and argument. But she also checked each of his calculations and made sure the data was accurate.
“She was an incredibly bright woman,” Appelbaum said.
She was also very organized. As her husband’s right hand, she became the de facto manager of The Hutch’s medical-research team.
She wrote grant proposals, managed budgets, edited her husband’s seminal reference book, attended scientific conferences with him, and corralled all the contributors to scientific papers to deliver their material on schedule.
Today, in the U.S. alone more than 170 other centers perform the bone-marrow transplants developed at The Hutch. In 1990, Dr. Thomas won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his achievements.
Hunting and fishing
In addition to her career and motherhood, Mrs. Thomas was an accomplished outdoorswoman who spent many family vacations hunting and fishing with her husband in Montana and Alaska.
Accompanying Dr. Thomas to accept the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Mrs. Thomas connected with the shy Swedish King Carl Gustaf by chatting about her prowess with a hunting rifle.
Mrs. Thomas is survived by two sons, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas Jr. of Montana and Jeffrey Thomas of Mill Creek; daughter Dr. Elaine Thomas of Albuquerque, N.M.; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The family requests that people who wish to honor her contribute to Dottie’s Bridge, an endowment she set up last year to support young scientific researchers.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org