Human beings by their nature are problem solvers, to one degree or another. Dedicated scientists and physicians have solved many problems by developing cures for diseases once thought incurable, replacing the dread of diagnosis with hope for a healthy future. Texas native and Nobel Prize-winning scientist E. Donnall Thomas opened a path for many with his breakthrough treatments for leukemia, developing a process that has saved thousands of lives.
Don Thomas was born and raised in the small community of Mart, just east of Waco. His father was a respected physician in the community, Dr. Edward E. Thomas. His mother, Angie Donnall, worked as a teacher. Science and education became indispensable parts of his life, and he excelled.
He attended the University of Texas beginning in 1937, majoring in chemistry. Thomas took a series of jobs around campus to pay for his studies. He graduated in 1941 and dove into his graduate studies. He married fellow UT student Dorothy Martin in 1942, who would later work in his labs with him. By 1943, having just earned a masters degree in chemistry, he enrolled at Harvard Medical School.
Leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow which causes abnormal or non-functioning white blood cells and eventually death, was a subject of increasing study and experimentation by the 1940s. No effective treatments existed at that point as frustrated doctors and scientists searched for a cure. Thomas began investigating the field increasingly as his medical studies progressed. He graduated from medical school in 1946, served his residency, or formal physician training period, at the prestigious Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston before serving briefly in the U. S. Army.
After his military service, he served from 1955 to 1963 as physician-in-chief at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in New York, where he began his cancer research. Thomas devised a completely new approach. By destroying the existing diseased bone marrow with radiation and then transplanting new, healthy marrow from a donor, the body could then regenerate its own ability to create white blood cells essential to survival and end the disease for good. However, in the 1950s, scientists still understood little about radiation or matching patient marrow types.
He began his first experiments on dogs in 1957. The early results were discouraging, and most subjects died. Many of Thomas’s colleagues tried to persuade him to abandon his research given the initial failures, but Thomas was determined to succeed. Of those that survived, Thomas noticed that matching bone marrow type was the key to a successful transplant.
After he moved to the University of Washington’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the 1960s, Thomas developed an improved matching type-matching in human beings, allowing successful bone marrow transplants between siblings or, later, with another closely-matched type. By the end of the 1970s, combining chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, Thomas reported a cure rate of 50%. Bone marrow transplants soon became an accepted treatment and the cure rates steadily climbed as increased research improved the process.
While many aspects of leukemia remain a mystery, the disease is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was. The disease still causes many deaths each year, but new treatments continue to emerge, and hundreds of thousands have been cured of leukemia through Thomas’s research. Bone marrow transplants now cure up to 80% of leukemia cases in children.
Thomas was revered by his colleagues and awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990, an award placing him among the greatest scientific minds in history. He went into semi-retirement that year, living a quiet life with his family before his death in 2012.