'Mother of bone marrow transplantation' Dottie Thomas establishes endowment to assist young researchers

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Dottie's Bridge

‘Mother of bone marrow transplantation’ Dottie Thomas establishes endowment to assist young researchers

March 12, 2014
Dottie Thomas and Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Dottie and Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Fred Hutch file

Meticulous editor, tireless administrator and avid sportswoman, Dorothy E. “Dottie” Thomas has always been a force to be reckoned with, whether armed with a hunting rifle or a red pen.

The 91-year-old wife of the Nobel prize-winning bone marrow transplant pioneer, the late Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, Dottie has been called the “mother of bone marrow transplantation” thanks to the nearly 60 years she spent working at her husband’s side.

“Dottie did it all,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “She was everything from Don’s early-on lab technician to the writer of his grants to his administrator to the person who kept all the records and reviewed all the papers. She even got him his lunch every day.”

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Dottie Thomas can now add major benefactor to her many roles, thanks to the creation of Dottie’s Bridge, an endowment designed to grow and then help young promising researchers bridge the gap between the end of their NIH-supported fellowship and their first grant award.

“After you’ve finished your formal training, there’s a gulf between that time and the point where you have enough data and experience to really warrant a position as a full faculty member,” Appelbaum said. “That gulf is where Dottie’s contribution is going to be important. It’s the late adolescence/early adulthood of someone’s career.”

The Thomas’ lifelong collaboration began at just such a time, while they were both attending the University of Texas at Austin. Shortly after an auspicious meeting (Dottie hit her future husband in the face with an errant snowball), the two became inseparable. They married in 1942 and while Don went on to Harvard Medical School, Dottie switched her field of study from journalism to medical technology.

“It became clear that if I wanted to see Don, I needed to get in on his work,” she said in a 1997 interview.

The couple began working together full-time in 1955 when Dr. Thomas was appointed physician-in-chief at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y. It was here that he began his first experiments in bone marrow transplantation. In 1963, the Thomases moved to Seattle, where they took up residence in a modest 1950s ranch style home in Clyde Hill. They joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1974.

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and Dottie Thomas

Dottie and Don Thomas, taken in 1943 when he was attending Harvard Medical School.

Fred Hutch file

“We went to dinner at their house repeatedly,” said Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, of the Clinical Research Division, who began working with the Thomases in 1975. “Whenever a visiting scientist would come, they’d have a dinner for the scientist and a few people.”

The couple hosted many young researchers at their home, as well, often serving up game that the couple had bagged themselves. 

“There was a great picture of Dottie with a shotgun in one hand and a moose head in her lap,” Appelbaum said. “And Don or Dottie would often nod to the picture of her with the rifle and say, ‘I sure hope you get all of your manuscripts in on time.’”

Dottie readily acknowledged her reputation as a tough, no-nonsense editor, a necessity when corralling the 80 researchers who contributed to Thomas’ seminal bone marrow transplantation reference book, Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. 

“My journalism background actually came in very handily when I was working as an administrator for the clinical division,” she said in an interview shortly before Don Thomas’ death in 2012. “I did a lot of work on editing manuscripts, helping with grant writing … and since I knew the material scientifically, as well, it worked out quite nicely.  One of my main jobs was to keep everybody on track, nag them to get their reports in. I was actually known as the ‘Dragon Lady’ because I really did keep people moving.”

She also helped them communicate crucial scientific findings with precision.

“When I first came here as a young researcher, Dottie was so helpful in helping me learn how to put together data, how to structure a manuscript and how to write clearly,” Appelbaum said.  “If it was muddy, it showed that your science wasn’t what it ought to be at that point.”

Witty, warm and whip smart, Dottie Thomas was also a dedicated mother, a skilled hunter (during the Nobel banquet in 1990, she won over the King of Sweden by telling him about her Custom Stock 257 Belgium Roberts rifle) and a devout opera fan.  In September 2012, Spanish tenor Jose Carreras flew to Seattle to perform a recital at Benaroya Hall in celebration of Dottie’s 90th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his Fred Hutch bone marrow transplant.

More about the Dottie's Bridge endowment

Every year when interns and residents complete their medical training, a small proportion will decide they want to do more than diagnose cancers and provide standard therapies. They are moved by experience in the clinic to do more. They want to advance knowledge and develop new therapies. They want to do research.

They apply to become Oncology Fellows. As Fellows, the NIH will support their training for three years, after which they must compete for their own research grants. However, in these days of rapidly evolving technologies, three years is not enough time to become competitive. One more year of support is needed to keep these highly trained, committed people on track.

Essentially, they need a “bridge” between the end of their Fellowship and their first grant award. The Dottie Thomas Endowment will provide this bridge. 

Dottie is best known for her tireless work at the Hutch, however, work that helped support the development of bone marrow transplantation from its very roots. Today, more than 1 million procedures have been performed worldwide, transforming leukemia and related cancers that were once thought incurable into highly treatable diseases with survival rates as high as 90 percent.

“It’s just sheer joy when you see somebody walk out of the hospital and assuming their life again,” said Dottie of the patients saved by the procedure. “It’s probably one of the greatest feelings you can have.”

Ann Marie Clark, director of the Arnold Library which houses The Thomas Collection, called Dottie Thomas’ contributions immense.

“Dottie did amazing work and created an environment in which that was the norm,” she said. “She was extremely organized and the volume of work they created was immense. Don produced over 1,000 articles in his scholarly career and I believe Dottie edited all of them.”

With the establishment of Dottie’s Bridge, designed to help young physicians and clinician scientists engaged in blood-related cancer research become independent academic researchers, Dottie’s legacy of commitment, hard work and passion will carry on for years to come. In a time of shrinking federal funding, the generous seed money gifted by Dottie Thomas is more essential than ever before. The hope, says longtime friend Torok-Storb, is that others will help grow the endowment to support and encourage the next generation of researchers.

“People who’ve been around for a while, in theory, have less trouble getting grants,” said Jeff Thomas, son of Dottie and Don Thomas. “The idea behind the Bridge obviously is to get young people the support they need to get the research going so they can get grants in the future. Both Mom and Dad really liked the idea of bringing along the younger people, the people with the fresh ideas.”

Torok-Storb agreed.

“She cared profoundly about the work,” she said “And she has always been very supportive of young people.”

Click here to donate to Dottie's Bridge

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has also written extensively about health issues for nbcnews.com, TODAY.com, CNN.com, MSN.com, Columns and several other publications. She also writes the breast cancer blog, doublewhammied.com. Reach her at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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