James Bowman, expert on pathology and blood diseases, 1923-2011

Update: A memorial service for the late Dr. James E. Bowman will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. Seating in the chapel will begin at 9 a.m. No cameras or recording equipment will be allowed in the chapel. A reception will follow at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St. In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations to the Bowman Society of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. Also on Dec. 1, the Bowman Society will host A Night of Remembrance for Dr. Bowman from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on the fourth floor of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine (DCAM).

James E. Bowman, professor emeritus in pathology and medicine at UChicago, died at the University of Chicago Medical Center on Sept. 28 at the age of 88 after a long battle with cancer.

An internationally recognized expert on pathology, inherited blood diseases and population genetics, Bowman was the first tenured African American professor in the University’s Biological Sciences Division. He also was a powerful advocate for minority scholars seeking access to academic medical careers.

“The University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Medical Center have lost one of their most important and eminent citizens,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine. “Dr. Bowman had an enormous impact in so many areas — as a physician, scientist, mentor, leader, role model and inspiration to students and faculty. We are indeed fortunate to have benefitted from his many contributions and from knowing a man of such exemplary integrity.”

Bowman, a senior scholar for the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and a member of the committees on genetics and on African and African American Studies at the University, was one of the first to study genetic variation among diverse populations, particularly those of African origin, and the relationship between genetics and minority health.

Later in his career, Bowman focused on the ethical, legal and public policy issues raised by human genetics and mandatory screening tests in certain U.S. states.

“James Bowman’s longstanding commitment to the study of sickle cell disease, both here and abroad, and his advocacy for communities and individuals affected by this mutation stand as the model for discussions of insurability and discrimination on the basis of genetic predisposition,” said William McDade, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care and deputy provost for research and minority issues at UChicago.

Born Feb. 5, 1923, James Edward Bowman grew up in Washington, D.C., during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.

“In those days,” he recalled in a 2006 interview for an oral-history project, “there was complete segregation. … One could only go to theaters, movies, restaurants in the black neighborhood.”

Still, Bowman said, he managed to get a “wonderful education” at Washington’s all-black Dunbar High School, where many of his teachers had PhDs from leading universities but were unable to secure college-level teaching positions.

In 1943, he earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Howard University. His father, a dentist, urged him to study dentistry, but Bowman wanted to study medicine. He entered Howard Medical School that fall and was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army as part of a specialized program that condensed medical training into three years. Bowman said the Army paid for his medical education with the expectation that all graduates would go directly into the service, but the Department of Defense later decided that they “did not want any black officers.” He was discharged in 1946.

He completed his internship at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., then moved to Chicago for a second internship at Provident Hospital. Soon afterward, an impressed supervisor connected Bowman with an eminent pathologist at Chicago’s St. Luke’s Hospital who offered him a residency position with research opportunities. Bowman accepted, becoming the first African American resident to train at that hospital.

During this period, he met Barbara Taylor, the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first African American chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. They married in 1950, two weeks after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Barbara Bowman went on to become president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate program in child development.

After his residency, James Bowman served as chairman of pathology at Provident Hospital for three years. He was drafted again and spent 1953 to 1955 as chief of pathology for the Medical Nutrition Laboratory at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver.

When his military obligations ended, the Bowmans decided to move overseas. “My wife and I decided that we were not going to go back to anything that smacked of segregation,” he recalled.

He was soon offered a job as chairman of pathology at Nemazee Hospital, a new facility in Shiraz, Iran. “We were recently married, so we took a chance,” he said. “It changed our lives completely.”

In 1956, a year after moving to Iran, their daughter, Valerie, was born.

During their time in Iran, from 1955 to 1961, Bowman said he saw a number of diseases for the first time. “I saw smallpox, brucellosis, rabies, all sorts of things,” he said.

One of the most common diseases among certain ethnic groups in Iran was favism, a genetic blood disease caused by an enzyme deficiency. The mutation renders those who have it unable to break down a toxin found in fava beans.

Favism fit with Bowman’s lifelong focus on inherited blood diseases and led to a series of important discoveries about the genetics of these diseases and the populations they affect, especially in the Middle East, Africa and America. It enabled him to travel all over the world collecting blood samples for DNA testing. It also led to frequent contacts and collaborations with University of Chicago researchers, who had first described the enzyme deficiency (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, or G6PD) and its connection with antimalarial medications.

“Jim Bowman was one of the early pioneers in the clinical applications of molecular genetics,” said Alvin Tarlov, former chairman of medicine at UChicago. “He did important work on a common enzyme deficiency and on donated blood and was a great source of information for all of us on inherited diseases.”

The University of Chicago invited Bowman to join the faculty in 1962 as an assistant professor of medicine and pathology and director of the hospital’s blood bank. “His knowledge of inherited blood disorders enabled him to detect abnormalities in the blood of the donor that, if undetected, would have made the transfusion dangerous to the recipient,” Tarlov said.

In 1967, Bowman was promoted to associate professor. In 1971, he became a full professor and director of laboratories. From 1973 to 1984, he directed the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center of the University of Chicago, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Bowman was a member of the national advisory group that urged the Nixon administration to initiate the inception of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, which served as a model of patient-centered disease management and research. Bowman also served as assistant dean of students for minority affairs for the Pritzker School of Medicine from 1986 to 1990.

He gained national attention in 1972 when he declared that the passage of adult mandatory sickle cell screening laws in several states was “more harmful than beneficial.” These laws could “revive many of the past misadventures and racism of eugenics movements,” he argued at the time, adding that adult screening programs create “inaccurate, misleading, politically motivated propaganda which has left mothers frantic.” In 1973, he was named to two federal review committees designed to oversee sickle cell screening and education and to evaluate laboratory diagnostic techniques.

“Jim was one of the first scholars to take a deep interest in the ethics of genetic screening, especially for sickle cell disease,” said Mark Siegler, professor of medicine and director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at UChicago. “He was anything but dispassionate on this topic. There were lessons to be learned from this early foray into genetic medicine, he insisted, and he served as a tough-minded advocate for the ethical approach to genetic testing of patients and populations.”

Bowman published more than 90 research studies in the fields of human genetics and related ethical, legal and public policy issues. He has received many awards, including recognition from the Howard University School of Medicine, the Hastings Center and Stanford’s Kaiser Family Foundation. He also received the CINE Golden Eagle Award for an educational film about sickle cells and the University of Chicago’s Gold Key Award. His legacy at the University of Chicago will continue through the Bowman Society, an advising group that supports minority scholars pursuing academic biomedical careers and sponsors a quarterly lecture series.

His impact extended beyond academia and science.

“He was my mentor, as he was for so many students,” said Anita Blanchard, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology at UChicago. “Dr. and Mrs. Bowman made a personal investment in his students’ wellbeing by inviting us into their home and treating us like family. Dr. Bowman inspired us to go beyond our expectations to explore international service and unique learning opportunities.”

He is survived by his wife Barbara; their daughter, Valerie Bowman Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, former chairwoman of the University of Chicago Medical Center board of trustees and former vice chairwoman of the University of Chicago board of trustees; and one granddaughter, Laura Jarrett, a lawyer soon to begin practice at Mayer Brown.

A memorial service at the University is being planned.

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Prof. James Bowman receives one of the University's 2011 Diversity Leadership Awards

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James Bowman
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