E. Donnall Thomas Biography


Birthday: March 15, 1920 (Pisces)

Born In: Mart, Texas, United States

Edward Donnall Thomas was an American physician and professor of Medicine who did pioneer research on bone marrow transplant which proved to be a milestone in treating leukemia and other blood disorder related fatal diseases. He was honored with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine in 1990. He began his research in 1950s when bone marrow transplant was a dismissed idea. However, his persistent efforts and groundbreaking research is responsible for saving the lives of thousands of people around the globe. Bone marrow transplantation and its allied therapies, like blood stem cell transplantation have proved an important milestone in medical science.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Edward Donnall Donnall 'Don' Thomas

Died At Age: 92


Spouse/Ex-: Dorothy Martin

father: Edward E Thomas

children: Don Jr., Elaine, Jeffrey

Scientists American Men

Died on: October 20, 2012

place of death: Seattle, Washington, United States

U.S. State: Texas

More Facts

education: University of Texas at Austin, Harvard Medical School

awards: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1990
National Medal of Science in 1990

Childhood & Early Life
Donnall was born on 15th March 1920 in a small Texas village, Mart. His Father, Edward E Thomas was a doctor and was the only general practitioner in his village. Edward’s first wife died of tuberculosis. Donnall was his only child from his second marriage. When Donnall was born Edward was 50 years old.
He enrolled himself at the University of Texas in Austin in 1937. He received a B. A. degree in 1941 and M. A. in 1943.
He entered Harvard Medical School in 1943. He received his M. D. in 1946. He completed one year internship in hematology under the guidance of Dr. Clement Finch. Dr. Finch and Donnall developed a special bond and became lifelong friends.
He took a break in his studies to serve as a physician in US Army during the period 1948-50.
After his stint with the US army, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1953, he worked as an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
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He worked as ‘Chief Medical Resident’ at the ‘Peter Bent Brigham Hospital’ in Boston. During his residentship, he developed friendship with Dr. Joseph Murray, who also had interest in transplantation. He helped Dr. Murray care for his first kidney transplant patient.
During medical school he got interested in the bone marrow and leukemia. This interest was intensified by his early association with Dr. Sydney Farber who gave him his first laboratory in the new Jimmy Fund Building.
During his stint at M.I.T., he got an opportunity to treat a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For a brief period, Donnall became interested in factors that stimulate marrow function. However, he later changed his field of interest.
In 1955, he started his work on marrow transplantation in human patients and dog, as an out bred animal in ‘Mary Imogene Basset Hospital’ in Cooperstown, New York. At the end of study, he learned that marrow transplant in human beings was going to be difficult. However, he continued working with dogs on many aspects of marrow transplantation.
In 1963, he moved to Seattle and started his research work in ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital’.
In 1972, the ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital’ was closed by the federal government. Hence, in 1975 Donnall moved his team into the ‘Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’ which provided superb facilities and the opportunity to expand the ‘Cancer research program’ with the cooperation of the ‘Swedish Hospital Medical Center’.
Donnall joined the faculty of ‘Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’ 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 officially retired from the Hutchinson Center in 2002.
He became ‘Professor Emeritus’ at the ‘University of Washington’ in 1990.
Major Works
When Donnall began his research, patients suffered due to dangerous complications in bone marrow transplant procedures. The patient’s immune system would either destroy the transplanted marrow as foreign or the transplanted marrow, which contains immune system cells, would destroy the patient’s lungs, kidneys and other organs. The only successful cases were of identical twins because their tissues matched. Many researchers gave up working on organ transplants because of these issues, but Donnall persisted.
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After moving to Seattle, in 1963, at the invitation of Dr. Robert Williams, a famous endocrinologist and first chairman of the ‘Department of Medicine’ at the ‘University of Washington’, he started his program in the ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital’. He developed a team of experts who began experimenting with new drugs that could suppress the patient’s immune system and thus prevent rejection of the new tissue. The scope of the program undertaken by his team included studies of immunology and irradiation biology in the dog, borrowing knowledge of human histo-compatibility from Amos, Payne and Dausset. They also worked on the assembly and training of a critical care team of nurses. Their ultimate goal was 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 was to establish a fully functioning and cancer-free blood and immune system.
Donnall's team performed the first bone marrow transplant of a leukemia patient from a matched donor in March 1969. During the 1970s they developed and perfected a comprehensive procedure for treating leukemia patients. The procedure was to first give radiation therapy to the patient, both to kill cancer cells and to weaken the immune system so that it does not reject the transplant. Then patient’s bone marrow is replaced with marrow from a compatible donor. Many patients had been cured of leukemia using this technique by the late 1970s. Since then Donnall and his colleagues improved their success rate significantly. In addition to leukemia and other cancers of the blood, bone marrow transplants are used to treat certain inherited blood disorders and to aid people whose bone marrow has been destroyed by accidental exposure to radiation. In 1990, Donnall was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He shared this prize with Dr. Joseph E. Murray, his old friend and American physician who had done pioneer work in the area of transplants.
Awards & Achievements
Donnall’s contribution towards the medical sciences was rewarded by the prestigious ‘Nobel Prize’ and ‘Presidential Medal in Science’ in 1990.
He was a member of 15 medical societies, including the ‘National Academy of Sciences’, ‘Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee’ and ‘National Cancer Institute’. He was President of ‘American Society of Hematology’ and served on the editorial boards of eight medical journals.
He also received more than 35 major honors and awards, including ‘The Philip Levine Award’ from American Society of Clinical Pathologists, New Orleans in 1979, ‘American Cancer Society Award’ for ‘Distinguished Service in Basic Research’ in 1980 and ‘Medal of Merit’ from ‘State of Washington’ in 1998.
He received honorary ‘Doctorate of Medicine’ from ‘University of Cagliari’, Sardinia in 1981, ‘University of Verona’ in 1991 and ‘University of Parma’, in 1992. He was also awarded the honorary degrees from ‘University of Barcelona’ in 1994 and ‘University of Warsaw’ in 1996.
Personal Life & Legacy
During his undergraduate days, he met Dorothy Martin and later married her. During his medical studies, Dorothy gave up her journalism work and started working as a trainee laboratory technician to support the family.
The couple has 3 children, Don Jr. (practices internal medicine in Montana), Jeffrey (he runs a business in Seattle) and Elaine (a Fellow in infectious diseases at the University of Washington).
Donnall died at the age of 92 on 20th October 2012 in Seattle.
During his schooling days, he was not a bright student. However, later he developed interest in studies.

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