In the early 1970s Dr. Janet Rowley identified a process of "translocation," or the exchange of genetic material between chromosomes in patients with leukemia. This discovery, along with Dr. Rowley's subsequent work on chromosomal abnormalities, has revolutionized the medical understanding of the role of genetic exchange and damage in causing disease.
Janet Davison was born in New York City in 1925, the only child born to Hurford and Ethel Ballantyne Davison, both of whom had earned advanced degrees. Her father held a master of business administration from Harvard Business School, and her mother had graduated with a master's degree in education from Columbia University. Both became educators at the college and high school levels respectively, her mother later giving up teaching to become a school librarian.
Both parents encouraged their daughter's education, enrolling Davison in an academically challenging junior high school in New Jersey. She studied diligently and was an avid reader, becoming especially interested in science. In 1940, she was granted a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago. Beginning at the age of 15, she finished the last two years of high school and the first two years of college in an advanced placement program, learning to think for herself and study independently. These skills were the ideal foundation for a research career.
Davison remained at the University of Chicago and earned a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1944, a bachelor of science degree in 1946, and doctor of medicine degree in 1948. She married Donald Adams Rowley, also a physician, the day after graduating from medical school. For the next twenty years, Dr. Rowley balanced family life with her career by working part-time as she raised four sons. She began full-time research when the youngest was 12 years old.
After earning her medical license in 1951, Dr. Rowley worked as attending physician at the Infant and Prenatal Clinics in the Department of Public Health, Montgomery County, Maryland. In 1955 she took up a research post at Chicago's Dr. Julian Levinson Foundation, a clinic for children with developmental disabilities, where she remained until 1961. She also taught neurology at the University Illinois School of Medicine.
In 1962, after a year in England as an NIH trainee, studying the pattern of deoxyribonucleaic acid (DNA) replication in normal and abnormal human chromosomes, Dr. Rowley returned to the University of Chicago, as a research associate in the Department of Hematology. She became an associate professor in 1969, and a full professor in 1977. In the 1970s, she further developed the use of existing methods of quinacrine flourescence and Giemsa staining to identify chromosomes, and demonstrated that the abnormal Philadelphia chromosome implicated in certain types of leukemia was involved in a translocation with chromosome 9 in some cases. Translocation is the process by which a piece of one chromosome breaks off and joins another chromosome, or when two chromosomes exchange material when both break. She also identified translocation between chromosomes 8 and 21 in myeloblastic leukemia.
When Dr. Rowley published her findings in the 1970s, she argued that specific translocations caused specific diseases, going against the established view of the cause of cancer which gave little significance to chromosomal abnormalities. Although there was some resistance to her ideas at first, her work has proven immensely influential, and by 1990 over seventy translocations had been identified across different cancers.
In 1984, Dr. Rowley was made the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, a position she still holds, as well as serving as the interim deputy dean for science since 2001. In 1998, she was one of three scientists awarded the prestigious Lasker Award for their work on translocation. She has published over four hundred articles and continues her research at the University of Chicago.