Dr. E. Donnall Thomas of Seattle, who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in medicine for his pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation to cure leukemias and other blood cancers, died today, according to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Cenrter. He was 92.
Dr. Thomas joined the faculty of Fred Hutchinson 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 retired from the Hutchinson Center in 2002, according to a news release.
“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 remembered as a friend, colleague, mentor and pioneer,” said Larry Corey, M.D., president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said in the new release. “The work Don Thomas did to establish marrow transplantation as a successful treatment for leukemia and other otherwise fatal diseases of the blood is responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe.”
Dr. Thomas came to Seattle in 1963 to be the first head of the Division of Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
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Dr. Thomas began research on the process in the 1950s, publishing his first paper in 1957 in the New England Journal of Medicine. He did research in the laboratory and on dogs and did the first human transplant on a set of twins in 1955. Many of the transplants were unsuccessful, but Dr. Thomas stayed with it.
“I think some of the dog studies in 1955, 1956 and 1957 were what convinced us,” Dr. Thomas told The Associated Press in 1990. “We recognized that some of the dogs could do well and have a normal canine lifespan. It convinced us that if we knew how to do that, we could do it with humans.”
Dr. Thomas credited the perfection of human tissue typing in the late 1960s with helping improve bone-marrow donor matches and the whole process.
Dr. Thomas has often said that progress in science is not made in “breakthroughs,” but by small, often difficult steps in the laboratory and with patient treatment.
Dr. Thomas is survived by his wife, Dottie, two sons and a daughter.
To read an autobiography by Dr. Thomas on the Nobel Prize’s website, click here.