Donald Rowley, pioneering immunologist, 1923-2013

Update: A memorial service for Donald Rowley is being planned for 2:30 p.m. on April 21 at Bond Chapel, 1025 E. 58th St.

Donald Rowley, a pioneer in discovering how the immune system functions and the inventor of the gel electrode, a crucial tool that monitors cardiac activity, died at his home Feb. 24, after a long battle with congestive heart failure. He was 90 years old.

Rowley, professor emeritus in pathology and the Committee on Immunology, was a wide-ranging and imaginative researcher. He made a series of fundamental discoveries that had a significant impact on the basic understanding of the immune system as well as on many clinical specialties, including cancer immunology, organ transplantation and cardiovascular disease.


“Don Rowley was someone who did productive original research in many fields,” said immunologist Hans Schreiber, professor of pathology at UChicago and a former student of Rowley’s. “He had the capacity to dig into many different areas, ask the important questions, design elegant experiments to answer them and then shift his attention to new problems. Don was always looking for the next important question. He was admired by people I admire.”

His best-known discovery came outside his chosen field. In 1954, as an immunologist working in a pathology department, Rowley was “coerced,” as he put it in a memoir, “into spending two days a week for two years on the hospital’s autopsy service.”

He and cardiac pathologist Seymour Glagov, were struck by a colleague’s observation during an autopsy that people who died from clogged coronary arteries often had pristine renal arteries. They wondered: Could something related to proximity to the beating heart be the cause? If so, they hypothesized, those with higher heart rates would have greater risk.

At the time, there were no tools to monitor heartbeats over long periods; so they invented one. They worked with an undergraduate student at UChicago and a watch repairman to convert a spring-wound pocket watch into a portable pulse counter and built tiny electrical sensors that could be glued reliably to the chest—the first gel electrodes. The gadget later would be scaled up with help from the Elgin National Watch Co. and Illinois Bell Telephone.

This simple device, no bigger than a deck of cards, accurately could record the electrical activity of the heart for more than 24 hours. It heralded the birth of ambulatory cardiology. Rowley and colleagues described their counter in a report to Science in 1959. They performed additional studies on 100 volunteers, showing enormous variation in daily heart rates.

Reaction from most clinicians “ranged from open hostility to amiable skepticism,” Rowley later would recall. By the late 1960s, several studies had confirmed the connections between continuously elevated pulse rates and heart attacks or sudden cardiac death. By then, the gel electrode had become ubiquitous.

“We never considered patenting the principle of the electrodes,” Rowley later lamented. It was “simply not part of the academic culture.”

In the late 1960s, Rowley and his graduate student Donald Mosier were the first to describe the function of a previously unrecognized cell type, a component of the adaptive immune system they labeled the “A cell,” for its “adherent, accessory or antigen-presenting capacity.” This was a rare blood cell that could recognize elements of foreign tissue and present these antigens to B and T lymphocytes, which play a major role in the body’s adaptive immune response.

In 1973, a research team headed by Ralph Steinman at the Rockefeller University also described a new immune cell type, which they called the dendritic cell for its branching, tree-like shape. Over time, it became clear that A and dendritic cells were “one and the same,” according to a 2012 essay by Rowley and Frank Fitch, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Chicago. Subsequent work by the Rockefeller group demonstrated the fundamental importance of dendritic cells in the initiation and regulation of the body’s response to foreign antigens—work that posthumously brought Steinman the 2011 Nobel Prize.

“The Rockefeller team did marvelous work on this and convinced the scientific community,” said Schreiber, “but Rowley had the function before Steinman had the shape.”

Rowley made additional advances in several areas. In the early 1950s, he demonstrated the critical role of the spleen in antibody production, showing that its removal virtually abolished production of circulating antibodies.

In the 1960s, Rowley and Fitch developed a highly targeted way to suppress the immune system’s attack on transplanted organs. By exposing a rat to antigens from an organ-donor rat the day before a transplant, followed the next day with antibodies against those antigens, they could prevent rejection without weakening the rat’s defenses against pathogens. This seemingly promising approach never reached human trials.

“They were terrific guys to work with,” said transplant surgeon Frank Stuart, who came to the University of Chicago in 1966. “Together, we devised more and more specific ways to tamper with each immunologic pathway. This work eventually let us focus treatment like carefully targeted rifle shots, rather than blasting the whole immune system with a blunderbuss.”

From then on, much of Rowley’s research focused on immunology and cancer. He tested novel methods to focus the immune system on tumors and to prevent the cancer from weakening or deflecting an immune response.

distinguished career at UChicago

Donald Adams Rowley was born Feb. 4, 1923, in Owatonna, Minn., about 50 miles south of Minneapolis. His father, Julian, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, taught him to sail and they built boats and rafts together. Rowley graduated from Pillsbury Military Academy as valedictorian in 1941 and won a full scholarship, worth $300 a year, to the University of Chicago.

In 1943, Rowley enlisted in a U.S. Army program that trained physicians. This allowed him to combine the last two years of college with first years of medical school. He graduated from college in 1945, but was soon expelled from medical school for, in his words, “asking too many questions, arguing and other defects of character.”

The Army sent him to the Philippines to work in a medical-aid station being set up in advance of an invasion on Japan. With the surrender of the Japanese that August, the aid station was used to provide care for Japanese prisoners.

In 1946, Rowley returned to UChicago as a graduate student in pathology and worked in the laboratory of the department chairman on a project that led to two single-authored papers.

He was allowed to return to medical school in January 1948, when he met fellow medical student Janet Davison at an ice skating rink; she needed help and he, a skilled hockey player, provided it. They married 11 months later on Dec. 18, 1948—the day after she graduated from medical school. He received his master’s degree in pathology and his doctor of medicine degree in 1950.

After an internship at the U.S. Public Health System’s Marine Hospital in Chicago, he served as an assistant surgeon for the Public Health System’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where he studied the pathogenesis of histoplasmosis, a fungal infection. In 1954, he returned to the University of Chicago as a research associate (instructor) in pathology and was on the autopsy service, as well as doing research at what was then called La Rabida Sanitarium.

Rowley was promoted to assistant professor in 1957, associate professor in 1961 and professor in 1969. He also was named a professor of pediatrics in 1973 and served as the director of the La Rabida Children’s Hospital and Research Center from 1978 to 1981, and as director of research at the La Rabida-University of Chicago Institute from 1973 to 1987.

A prolific author, Rowley published more than 100 research papers, many in leading journals, as well as several book chapters. He helped his graduate students publish single-author papers, describing work done under his supervision in his laboratory, often in high-profile journals such as Science or the Journal of Immunology. “This is a courtesy that no longer exists,” Schreiber said.

That sort of generosity, giving his students complete credit, “was typical of Don,” Fitch said. “He was a wonderful, genuine friend and colleague and, for many students and young faculty, a mentor. He was a small-town boy who thrived in the big city.”

Rowley received many honors. He received a U.S. Public Health System Merit Award. Both he and his wife were named American Association for the Advancement of Science fellows by their peers in 1998 in recognition of “meritorious efforts to advance science.” He served as president of the Chicago Association of Immunologists and as associate editor of the Journal of Immunology. He was a member of the immunobiology study section of the National Institutes of Health and of the Leukemia Research Foundation’s advisory board.

He reveled in the accomplishments of his wife, who raised their sons while working part time as a physician and then met extraordinary success in cancer research, winning a steady stream of honors, including the Lasker Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I admired Don for that,” Fitch said. “He was proud but in no way jealous, and it did not affect how he approached his career.”

He was also a good father, according to his son, David. “He was reasonably strict early in life,” he said, “but unbelievably supportive later on.”

Rowley shared his deep interest in woodworking with his sons, organizing summer projects together, which usually involved boats. He filled the home with tables, chairs, shelves and bookcases he designed and built. He even patented his design for lightweight tables that could be fastened onto balcony railings.

In 1993, Rowley moved to emeritus status, but he remained active in the laboratory into his late 80s, publishing several papers in 2012. He continued to do research until the end, meeting with a colleague the day before he died to discuss a project.

Rowley is survived by his wife, Janet, a distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago; three of their four sons: David, Robert and Roger; five grandchildren: Jason, Jenny, Gia, Anra and Ian; and his sister, Alice Panzer.

A memorial service is being planned for the spring. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be directed to the Donald and Janet Rowley Scholarship Fund, which aids undergraduates at the University of Chicago.