Edward Donnall Thomas was an American physician and professor of medicine who pioneered bone marrow transplantation, a procedure that proved to be a game changer in the treatment of leukemia and other blood disorder-related fatal diseases. In 1990, he was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He began his research in the 1950s, when bone marrow transplantation was considered a fringe concept. However, his unwavering efforts and ground-breaking research have resulted in the saving of thousands of lives worldwide. Bone marrow transplantation and its associated therapies, such as blood stem cell transplantation, have established a new standard of care in medical science.
Childhood & Adolescence
Donnall was born on 15 March 1920 in Mart, a small town in Texas. His father, Edward E Thomas, was a physician and the village’s sole general practitioner. Edward’s first wife passed away as a result of tuberculosis. Donnall, his only child from his second marriage, was his only child. Edward was 50 years old when Donnall was born.
In 1937, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B. A. in 1941 and his M. A. in 1943.
In 1943, he enrolled at Harvard Medical School. In 1946, he earned his M. D. He completed a one-year hematology internship under the supervision of Dr. Clement Finch. Dr. Finch and Donnall struck up an instant connection and became lifelong friends.
He interrupted his studies to serve as a physician in the United States Army from 1948 to 1950.
Following his service in the United States Army, he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral fellow. In 1953, he joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an instructor.
Career of E. Donnall Thomas
He was the ‘Chief Medical Resident’ at Boston’s ‘Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. During his residency, he met Dr. Joseph Murray, who shared his interest in transplantation. Dr. Murray enlisted his assistance in caring for his first kidney transplant patient.
He developed an interest in bone marrow and leukemia during medical school. This interest was piqued further by his early association with Dr. Sydney Farber, who provided him with his first laboratory space in the newly constructed Jimmy Fund Building.
He had the opportunity to treat a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia during his time at M.I.T. Donnall briefly became interested in factors that promote bone marrow function. He later shifted his focus, however.
In 1955, he began his research on marrow transplantation in human patients and dogs as an outbred animal at Cooperstown, New York’s ‘Mary Imogene Basset Hospital.’ At the conclusion of his research, he discovered that human marrow transplantation would be difficult. He continued, however, to work with dogs on a variety of aspects of bone marrow transplantation.
He relocated to Seattle in 1963 and began his research career at the ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital.’
The federal government closed the ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital’ in 1972. As a result, Donnall relocated his team to the ‘Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’ in 1975, which offered superior facilities and the opportunity to expand the ‘Cancer research program’ in collaboration with the ‘Swedish Hospital Medical Center’.
Donnall became the first director of medical oncology at the ‘Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’ in 1974. He later became associate director and then director of the Clinical Research Division of the Center. He resigned from that position in 1990 at the age of 70 and from the Hutchinson Center in 2002.
In 1990, he was named ‘Professor Emeritus’ at the ‘University of Washington.
Significant Works of E. Donnall Thomas
When Donnall began his research, patients were suffering as a result of dangerous complications associated with bone marrow transplantation. The patient’s immune system would either reject the transplanted marrow as foreign or would destroy the patient’s lungs, kidneys, and other organs due to the transplanted marrow’s immune system cells. The only successful cases involved identical twins whose tissues were identical. Numerous researchers abandoned work on organ transplantation as a result of these concerns, but Donnall persisted.
After relocating to Seattle in 1963 on the invitation of Dr. Robert Williams, a renowned endocrinologist and the first chairman of the ‘Department of Medicine’ at the ‘University of Washington,’ he began his program at the ‘Seattle Public Health Hospital.’ He assembled a team of experts who began testing new drugs that could suppress the patient’s immune system and thus prevent the new tissue from being rejected. His team’s program included studies of immunology and irradiation biology in dogs, drawing on Amos, Payne, and Dausset’s knowledge of human histocompatibility. Additionally, they assisted in the formation and training of a critical care nursing team. Their ultimate goal was to cure leukemia and other blood cancers by destroying the diseased bone marrow of a patient with near-lethal doses of radiation and chemotherapy and then rescuing the patient with healthy marrow transplantation. The objective was to establish a healthy, cancer-free blood and immune system.
In March 1969, Donnall’s team performed the first bone marrow transplant from a matched donor on a leukemia patient. They developed and refined a comprehensive procedure for treating leukemia patients in the 1970s. The patient was first given radiation therapy to kill cancer cells and to weaken the immune system so that the transplant would not be rejected. Following that, the patient’s bone marrow is replaced with that of a compatible donor. By the late 1970s, numerous patients had been cured of leukemia using this technique. Since then, Donnall and his colleagues have significantly increased their success rate. Along with leukemia and other blood cancers, bone marrow transplantation is used to treat certain inherited blood disorders and to assist individuals whose bone marrow has been destroyed by accidental radiation exposure. Donnall received the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He shared this honor with Dr. Joseph E. Murray, an old friend and pioneering American physician in the field of transplantation.
Awards and Accomplishments
Donnall’s contributions to medicine were recognized in 1990 with the prestigious ‘Nobel Prize’ and ‘Presidential Medal in Science’.
He was a member of fifteen medical organizations, including the ‘National Academy of Sciences,’ the ‘Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee,’ and the ‘National Cancer Institute.’ He served as the President of the ‘American Society of Hematology’ and on the editorial boards of eight medical journals.
He also received over 35 major honors and awards, including ‘The Philip Levine Award’ from the American Society of Clinical Pathologists in New Orleans in 1979, the ‘American Cancer Society Award’ for ‘Distinguished Service in Basic Research’ in 1980, and the ‘State of Washington’s’Medal of Merit in 1998.
In 1981, he received an honorary ‘Doctorate of Medicine’ from the ‘University of Cagliari’ in Sardinia, a ‘Doctorate of Medicine’ from the ‘University of Verona’ in 1991, and a ‘Doctorate of Medicine’ from the ‘University of Parma’ in 1992. He also received honorary degrees from the ‘University of Barcelona’ and the ‘University of Warsaw’ in 1994 and 1996, respectively.
Personal History and Legacies
He met Dorothy Martin during his undergraduate years and later married her. Dorothy quit her journalism job to work as a trainee laboratory technician to help support the family during his medical studies.
Don Jr. (who practices internal medicine in Montana), Jeffrey (who owns a business in Seattle), and Elaine are the couple’s children (a Fellow in infectious diseases at the University of Washington).
Donnall died in Seattle on October 20, 2012, at the age of 92.
Estimated Net Worth
The estimated net worth of E. Donnall Thomas is $3 million.
He was not a particularly bright student during his school years. However, he developed an interest in studies later in life.