Dorothy E. “Dottie” Thomas, known as the “mother of bone marrow transplantation” for the years she spent working as a research partner alongside her husband, Nobel Prize-winning Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, died Friday evening at her home near Seattle. She was 92.
The Thomases formed the core of a team that proved that bone marrow transplantation could cure leukemias and other blood cancers, work that spanned several decades.
“Dottie was there at Don’s side through every part of developing marrow transplantation as a science,” said Dr. Fred Appelbaum, executive vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Besides raising three children together, Dottie was Don’s partner in every aspect of his professional life, from working in the laboratory to editing manuscripts and administering his research program.”
Theirs was a deeply entwined relationship, a rare and true partnership of love, life, and work that spanned 70 years, until Don, the former director of the Clinical Research Division of Fred Hutch, died in 2012 at the age of 92.
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“Mom and Dad were joined at the hip long before I came on the scene,” said their son Jeff Thomas, who lives in Seattle. “They always functioned as a team.”
Raised in Texas, the former Dorothy Martin grew up in modest circumstances, graduating from her large San Antonio high school at age 16, a straight-A student and class valedictorian. She went on to study journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, planning for a career as a reporter. But a serendipitous bit of weather changed those plans. A rare Texas snowstorm hit the UT campus in the winter of 1940, prompting students – including the 17-year-old freshman – to take part in a snowball fight. One of Dottie’s snowballs smacked UT senior and chemistry major Don Thomas square in the face. It was an historic toss.
“She claims she was throwing it at another fellow and hit me by mistake,” he told The Seattle Times in a 1999 interview. “One thing led to another and we seemed to hit it off.”
The couple married in December 1942 and in 1943 Don was admitted to Harvard Medical School under a U.S. Army program. Dottie set aside her plans for a journalism career and enrolled in the medical technology training program at New England Deaconess Hospital so she could work beside her husband and pursue her own keen interest in science. After graduating, Dottie worked as a medical technician for various physicians until Don received his medical degree and got his own laboratory. After that, she never left his side.
The Thomases’ work in bone marrow transplantation began in the 1950s after Don was appointed physician-in-chief at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York. In 1963, they moved to Seattle where the couple continued to research the groundbreaking technique, first at the University of Washington School of Medicine and later at the newlybuilt Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“She worked with him very closely,” said Fred Hutch clinical researcher Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, who began working with the Thomases in 1975, the year the Hutch opened its doors. “I feel very secure in saying he probably would not have achieved as much as he did without her.”
Daughter Dr. Elaine Thomas, a physician and professor at the University of New Mexico, agreed.
“Mom had a brilliant mind and could have done anything she wanted, but back in those days, you stood by your man and helped him out,” she said. “She did whatever she needed to do to get Dad where he needed to be – and to take care of her home and family. After the war when they were in Germany, she was out there trading cigarettes on the black market to get baby formula for my brother. The older I get, the more I realize how incredible she was.”
That drive and resourcefulness served Dottie well at the Hutch, where for 15 years she served as chief administrator for the Clinical Research Division. She also managed Don’s research programs, wrote grants, kept meticulous records on their bone marrow transplant patients, helped write and edit Don’s scientific papers and basically made sure things got done.
“When I first came here, Dottie helped me learn how to put together data, how to structure a manuscript and how to write clearly,” said Appelbaum, a longtime friend and colleague. “She was an editor at heart.”
When Dr. Rainer Storb came from Germany in 1965 to join Don’s team at the UW, Dottie shared pragmatic homemaking tips with the young Fulbright Fellow.
“She told me to buy linens at Sears or Penney’s and everything else at St Vincent De Paul,” he said. “I still have some of those things.”
She was also a mother who enjoyed sharing her professional life with her children. According to son Jeff, the Thomas Lab was quite the family affair at times.
“There was one point where I was working with Rainer, my brother was a medical student and doing an oncology rotation and my sister was washing bottles and test tubes in the lab,” he said “It was truly a family operation for a long time.”
A gifted editor and an extraordinarily efficient administrator, Dottie was charmingly relentless when it came to keeping people on task – an iron fist within a velvet glove. When Don produced the definitive textbook on transplantation, Bone Marrow Transplantation, published in 1994, it was Dottie who wrangled the 80 or so researchers from around the country assigned to write the chapters.
One story she loved to tell involved a procrastinating author whom she’d had to prod again and again.
“Dottie was incredibly efficient and also persistent,” remembered Appelbaum. “There was one author who she’d contacted several times because he was late. One time, she called and the secretary who answered the phone forgot to put it on mute and said, ‘It’s that horrible woman from Seattle!’”
But for all her Texas toughness, she was a “lovely, lovely woman” who knew the importance of balancing work and life, said Appelbaum. “At the same time they were working so hard, they had three kids, they loved the outdoors and they took time to enjoy other things and each other.”
Elaine echoed this sentiment.
“They were incredible workaholics – working 80 and 90 hour weeks -- but they were also incredibly good parents,” she said. “Mom always had time for us no matter how busy she was. She went to the PTA meetings. She did the macaroni art.”
A skilled outdoorswoman and crack shot, Dottie loved camping, hunting and fishing. She was also passionate about the opera and entertaining at home, often inviting scientific colleagues to dine on the wild game she and Don bagged on their hunting trips to Alaska or Montana. These dinner parties would inevitably end with tea – served up in her mismatched collection of teacups and saucers – and her signature dessert “tutti-frutti,” a potent mix of fermented fruit and meringue.
Known for her warmth, her razor-sharp wit and her complete lack of pretension, Dottie was as comfortable with administrative assistants, leukemia patients and lab technicians as she was with world-renowned celebrities. When Don won the Nobel Prize in 1990, she charmed the notoriously shy King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, by steering the conversation to hunting.
“I made some inquiries about what he was interested in and what he liked to do for hobbies,” Dottie said in a video interview done shortly before the death of her husband. “And it turned out he was very interested in the environment and was also a hunter. I promptly let him know that I hunted. I don’t think he believed me at first. ‘What kind of gun do you shoot?’ he asked. I said ‘A Custom Stock 257 Belgium Roberts.’ He said ‘Ooooooh’ and we had a very nice conversation.”
She also formed a deep friendship with José Carreras after the Spanish tenor received a bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutch in 1987. In September 2012, Carreras flew to Seattle for a benefit recital at Benaroya Hall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his transplant and Dottie’s 90th birthday.
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland became friends with the Thomases when he and Don served on the advisory board of the José Carreras Leukaemia Foundation.
“Dottie’s life had a profound impact, not just on those who knew her personally, but also countless patients,” he said. “She and Don were amazing together in both what they accomplished and the way they cared for each other. They were so sweet together. Now their legacy continues through the many whose lives have been saved by bone marrow transplant and those who will be saved in the future. Dottie truly helped change the future of medicine. All of us at Fred Hutch are part of her legacy.”
Cancer patients were especially close to Dottie’s heart. A taskmaster on the job, she showed a softer side to the young children who came to the Hutch for treatment, holding them on her lap and comforting them when they were frightened. She would also translate for patients who didn’t speak English, help international families find restaurants where they could enjoy a familiar meal or simply take them home and cook for them herself.
“Mom bonded with a lot of people, especially in the early days,” said Elaine. “The patients were so sick and the families were in the hospital all the time. I remember her getting very close to the patients.”
Many of those patients have returned to the Hutch in later years for patient reunions, which continue to be held every five years.
“It’s just sheer joy when you see somebody walk out of the hospital, assuming their life again,” Dottie said in a video interview. “It’s probably one of the greatest feelings you can have.”
Dottie remained committed to science until her death. In early 2014, She took on another role when she became a major benefactor to the Hutch and created Dottie’s Bridge, an endowment designed to grow through donations. Its purpose is to help promising young researchers bridge the gap between the end of their fellowship support and their first independent grant awards. She knew that with timely support, promising fellows could be retained in research positions where they might develop a groundbreaking treatment like the one she and her husband developed. She profoundly cared about continuing the work in generations to come.
Early in the Thomases careers, the idea of saving lives through bone marrow transplant seemed like an impossible dream. Today, more than 1 million transplants have been performed around the world, transforming leukemia and related cancers that were once thought incurable into highly treatable diseases with survival rates as high as 90 percent.
Dottie Thomas is survived by two sons, Jeff Thomas and Dr. Don Thomas Jr.; a daughter, Dr. Elaine Thomas; eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The family requests that people who wish to honor her do so by contributing 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.