Colleagues and friends are remembering the late Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, a former physician in chief at Bassett Hospital and a recipient of a Nobel Prize, as a pioneer on bone marrow transplantation.
Thomas, who died last Saturday at the age of 92 in Seattle, Wash., completed the first bone marrow transplant in history in 1956 with Drs. Joseph W. Ferrebee, Theodore Peters Jr. and David A. Blumenstock at Bassett. The bone marrow from a healthy twin was transfused to a twin with leukemia.
Landmark heart and lung transplantation was also done at Bassett during this period, according to a media release from Bassett.
Thomas received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990.
“The years during which Dr. Thomas and his team conducted their research at Bassett was an amazing time for medicine, and their pioneering work helped place this Cooperstown hospital on a world stage,” Dr. William F. Streck, Bassett’s president and CEO, said in the release. “Bassett enjoys a rich history as a leader in rural medicine because of the great work and brilliant minds of so many individuals like Dr. Thomas over the hospital’s 90-year history.”
Thomas was an assistant physician at Bassett from September 1955 through June of 1956. He was appointed physician in chief on July 1, 1956, and remained in that position until July 8, 1963.
While the bone marrow transplantation work was under way at Bassett, patients arrived from all over the world, the release stated. It would take many years at Bassett, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle and other centers to work out the details leading to reliable transplant successes.
Thomas moved to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in 1974 and eventually became director of the clinical research division.
“I hunted with Don a lot; he was a better shot than I was,”Peters said about his colleague and friend. “He was very quiet, with a soft voice. You could hardly hear him in a group, and I guess that’s good, because it makes you stop and listen. He was very bright, interested in all avenues of research.”
Peters also stressed the role of Thomas’ wife, Dottie, as “a very important member of the team. She managed all of his literature and research affairs, and his role as a family.”
According to an obituary published in the New York Times, Thomas was born on March 15, 1920, in Mart, Texas, about 100 miles south of Dallas. He was the only child of Dr. Edward E. Thomas, a general practitioner, and Angie Hill Donnall, a teacher. He learned to hunt and fish, and as an adult, he would unwind after a hard day by reloading shells.
He studied chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1941 and his master’s degree in 1943.
To pay for his education, he worked odd jobs around campus. After a shift waiting tables at a women’s dormitory, he got into a snowball fight with a journalism student, Dorothy Martin. The couple married in 1942, and soon afterward, his wife shifted her career ambitions to become his laboratory technician and lifelong collaborator. Dr. Thomas went to Harvard Medical School, where he became interested in leukemia and bone marrow. He received his medical degree in 1946, spent two years in the Army, then returned to Boston to complete his residency and conduct research.
In 1955, he came to Cooperstown and what was then Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital. Besides his wife, his survivors include two sons, E. Donnall Jr. and Jeffrey, and one daughter, Elaine Thomas.
In recognition of Thomas’ achievements while at Bassett, a program designed to stimulate research interest among residents was named in his honor. Three-year residents are offered an opportunity to pursue research under this program. Residents have the option of selecting from a variety of types of projects and work, with time
allocated to the project, under a Bassett physician or scientist.