In Memoriam: Peter C. Nowell, MD

​(2/8/1928 - 12/26/2016)
Member since 1957

Peter C. Nowell, MD, Fellow of the AACR Academy, died Dec. 26, 2016, at the age of 88. Nowell, the Gaylord P. and Mary Louise Harnwell Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, was renowned for his codiscovery of the Philadelphia chromosome, which, for the first time, provided evidence of a genetic basis for cancer.

In 1960, Nowell and his colleague, the late David Hungerford, published their finding of an abnormally small chromosome that was present in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This discovery of what was later named the Philadelphia chromosome changed the way we think about cancer, although it would be another decade before chromosome abnormalities were found in other cancers.

The introduction of chromosome banding techniques in the 1970s enabled the late Janet Rowley to visually identify the abnormality seen by Nowell and Hungerford in CML patients as a t(9;22) translocation. The pivotal, groundbreaking research conducted by Nowell and his collaborators would eventually lead to the development of the tyrosine kinase inhibitor and targeted therapeutic imatinib for the treatment of CML and other similar molecularly driven malignancies.

Aside from his work involving the Philadelphia chromosome, Nowell was also the first to show that bone marrow transplantation was effective in irradiated animals, and in 1960 he reported in Cancer Research that the plant protein phytohemagglutinin (PHA) is capable of stimulating mitosis. This observation would later prove essential for lymphocyte culturing and for cytogenetic, chromosomal analyses.

After performing his studies regarding PHA, Nowell went on to establish the clonal evolution model of cancer. This model states that cancer is caused by a series of genetic mutations that are ultimately governed by natural selection. In this model, Nowell postulated that cancer cells constantly acquire mutations, some of which confer a survival advantage, resulting in clonal expansion of the cancer cells in question.

Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Nowell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent two years in San Francisco at the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory before returning to the University of Pennsylvania as an instructor in the Department of Pathology. He later became a professor and chair of the department and served as the first director of what is now known as the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nowell was an active AACR member since joining in 1957. He served on the AACR board of directors (1970-1973 and 1990-1993) and as an associate editor of Cancer Research (1982-1986).  He appeared on the cover of Cancer Research on three separate occasions: February 1983; October 1, 1989; and January 1, 1999.

Nowell was elected to the 2014 class of the Fellows of the AACR Academy. Other prestigious honors include the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science from The Franklin Institute, the Charles S. Mott Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the de Villiers International Achievement Award from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the Gold-Headed Cane Award and the Rous-Whipple Award from the American Society for Investigative Pathology. In addition, he was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. In 2015, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania established an endowed chair in his name, the Peter C. Nowell, MD Professorship.