Professor Peter C. Nowell, MD (1928-2016)

January 02, 2017

Dr. Peter C. Nowell, the Gaylord P. and Mary Louise Harnwell Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, died of Alzheimer’s disease complications on December 26, 2016, at the age of 88.

He was an outstanding scientist, whose fundamental contributions to basic and clinical science transformed the understanding of the genetic basis of cancer. Dr. Nowell, along with his research partner, the late David Hungerford, discovered the Philadelphia chromosome in 1960. This finding, an abnormally small chromosome in the cancerous white blood cells of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), was considered a watershed moment in cancer research, demonstrating the genetic basis for cancer, which ran counter to the prevailing thought at the time. The Philadelphia chromosome, along with Nowell's model of the clinical evolution of cancer, laid the groundwork for targeted therapies for oncogene-addicted cancers.

While best known for discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome, Dr. Nowell also advanced cancer research with his work on stimulating cell division for the study of human chromosomes and mechanisms of lymphocyte proliferation, long-term effects of radiation in producing cancer, and challenges of bone marrow transplantation. Dr. Nowell’s studies allowed continued development of studies understanding the chromosomal basis of CML (Janet Rowley), identification of the breakpoints on chromosomes 9 and 22 and showing the fusion of ABL1 and BCR (Nora Heisterkamp and John Groffen), and the identification of the pathogenic role of BCR-ABL1 as a tyrosine kinase (Owen Witte). These discoveries empowered the idea of the genetic-therapeutic paradigm (William Sellers), with the creation of tyrosine kinase inhibitors for the BCR-ABL1 oncogene (Nicholas Lydon), cell culture assays to demonstrate decrease in disease burden in BCR-ABL1 cells treated with various inhibitors (John Goldman) and clinical trials in CML patients with imatinib (Brian Druker and Charles Sawyers), leading the way for personalized medicine today.

Dr. Nowell received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1952, trained in pathology at Presbyterian Hospital, and spent two years at the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco, studying radiation and bone marrow transplantation, before returning to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine as an instructor, and later as a professor in the Department of Pathology. He served as chairman of the Department from 1967 to 1973 and was the first director of the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, now known as the Abramson Cancer Center.

Among his many awards and honors, Dr. Nowell received the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1998. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Upon the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia chromosome discovery, the Franklin Institute awarded Dr. Nowell its Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science. In 2013, he was awarded the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research and in 2014 he was eleceted Fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research. He co-authored more than 400 publications. At Penn, Dr. Nowell has been honored with the School of Medicine's highest honor, the Distinguished Graduate Award, the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Award of Merit, and was given an honorary Doctor of Science. Last year an endowed chair was established in his name, The Peter C. Nowell, MD Professorship, currently held by Dr. Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson.

Peter is remembered in the Department as a dear friend, an outstanding role model for faculty and students alike, a wonderful colleague, and a truly exceptional gentleman and scholar. He cared deeply for his family and for his colleagues. As a cherished mentor, Peter embodied the model where “standing on the shoulders of giants” has led to great discoveries and saved many lives.
Watch the 2010 video "Peter Nowell: A Life in Science"
Link to Philadelphia Inquirer obituary.
Link to New York Times obituary.
Link to Washington Post obituary.