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‘Mother of bone marrow transplantation’ Dorothy ‘Dottie’ Thomas dies

Wife of the late Fred Hutch Nobel laureate E. Donnall Thomas was his research partner in developing BMT as a lifesaving therapy
Dottie Thomas
“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. Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

SEATTLE – Jan. 10, 2015 – Dorothy "Dottie" Thomas, the wife and research partner of 1990 Nobel laureate E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., died the evening of Friday, Jan. 9. She was 92. Don Thomas, pioneer of the bone marrow transplant and former director of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, preceded her in death on Oct. 20, 2012, also at age 92.

The Thomases formed the core of a team that proved bone marrow transplantation could cure leukemias and other blood cancers, work that spanned several decades.

“Dottie’s life had a profound impact, not just on those who knew her personally, but also countless patients,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Gary Gilliland, M.D., Ph.D., who became friends with the Thomases when he and Don served on the advisory board of the José Carreras Leukaemia Foundation.

“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.”

Dottie Thomas, known as “the mother of bone marrow transplantation,” may have gotten the name from the late George Santos, M.D., a bone marrow transplantation expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and a professional colleague. “If Dr. Thomas is the father of bone-marrow transplantation, then Dottie Thomas is the mother,” he once said

Dottie Thomas with her husband, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, at a 2005 reunion of transplant patients
Dottie Thomas with her husband, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, at a 2005 reunion of transplant patients in Seattle. Photo by Jim Linna

A snowball to the face during a rare Texas snowfall in 1940 precipitated a partnership in love and work between Don and the former Dorothy Martin that spanned 70 years.

“I was a senior at the University of Texas when she was a freshman. I was waiting tables at the girls dormitory, which is how I got my food,” Don Thomas told The Seattle Times in a 1999 interview. “It snowed in Texas, which is very unusual. And I came out of the dormitory after we'd finished serving breakfast, and there was about six inches of snow. This girl whacked me in the face with a snowball. She still claims she was throwing it at another fellow and hit me by mistake. One thing led to another, and we seemed to hit it off.”

They did indeed. The couple married in December 1942.

Dottie was a journalism major in college when, in March 1943, Don was admitted to Harvard University Medical School under a U.S. Army program. Dottie got a job as a secretary with the Navy while Don attended medical school.

“Dottie and I talked it over, and we decided that if we were going to spend time together, which it turned out we liked to do, that she probably ought to change her profession,” Don told The Seattle Times. “She’d taken a lot of science in her time in school, much more than most journalists. She liked science.”

Dottie left her Navy job and enrolled in the medical technology training program at New England Deaconess Hospital. “Because Dottie was a hematology technician, we used to look at smears and bone marrow together when we were students,” Don said.

She worked as a medical technician for some doctors in Boston until eventually Don had his own laboratory, and then she began to work with him. She worked half-time when their children were small, but otherwise was in the lab full time with her husband.

“Dottie was there at Don’s side through every part of developing marrow transplantation as a science,” said Fred Appelbaum, M.D., 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.”

 Dottie’s journalism training was a big asset to the team, her husband recalled. “In the laboratory days, my friends pointed out that Dottie, who had the library experience, would go to the library and look up all the background information for a study that we were going to do, and then she would go into the laboratory and do the work and get the data, and then with her writing skills, she’d write the paper and complete the bibliography,” Don recalled. “All I would do is sign the letter to the editor.”

The couple moved to Seattle in 1963. Don joined Fred Hutch in 1975, the year its doors opened in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. For the next 15 years Dottie served as the chief administrator for the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division. Don stepped down from the clinical leadership position in 1990 and retired from Fred Hutch in 2002.

The Thomases are survived by two sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family requests that people who wish to honor her do so by contributing to Dottie’s Bridge.

Note for broadcast media: B-roll of Don and Dottie Thomas is available upon request.

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home to three Nobel laureates, interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists seek new and innovative ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Fred Hutch’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation led to the development of immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system to treat cancer. An independent, nonprofit research institute based in Seattle, Fred Hutch houses the nation’s first National Cancer Institute-funded cancer prevention research program, as well as the clinical coordinating center of the Women’s Health Initiative and the international headquarters of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.

Molly McElroy
206.667.6651 (desk)