Rowley ‘overwhelmed’ after receiving nation’s highest civilian honor

President Barack Obama honored the University of Chicago's Janet Rowley with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—on Wednesday at the White House.

"The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award," Obama said. "They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches. Rather they set out guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages, but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them."

Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Human Genetics at the University, sat on stage between Broadway actress Chita Rivera and Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Sen. Ted Kennedy and veteran actor Sidney Poitier were among the 16 honorees recognized in a crowded East Room.

"What unites them is a belief," Obama said of the honorees, "that our lives are what we make of them; that no barriers of race, gender, or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit; and that the truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another."

Rowley's husband, children and grandchildren were on hand for her big day. At a reception after the ceremony, Rowley's 8-year-old grandson Ian ran to President Obama and First Lady Michelle, wrapping his arms around each of them.

"This is probably the highest honor that I have received and will receive," Rowley said in a phone interview with CBS-2 after the ceremony. "It's so much more than I expected. I'm really quite overwhelmed."

In introducing Rowley, Obama told the audience that she "got married and gave birth to four sons, making medicine a hobby and her family a priority."

Rowley attended medical school under a quota that allowed only three women per class. The day after she graduated in December 1948, she married University of Chicago pathologist Donald Rowley. She worked part time in clinics before beginning a career in research during the 1960s.

"I actually thought I had it made working three days a week. I could take care of my children, garden, weave and go to museums. I was going to keep on with my wonderful life, but it didn't work out like that. Some success awakens in you that you want more success," Rowley said.

Then in 1972, sitting at her dining room table, Rowley discovered the link between genetics and cancer. She was analyzing cells of patients with leukemia, and noticed that in each patient, parts of two of their chromosomes were breaking off and trading places.

It took almost another decade before the world began paying attention to Rowley's claims that these genetic changes cause cancer. Today, her work has revolutionized cancer research and treatment.

"All of us have been touched in some way by cancer, including my family-and so we can all be thankful that what began as a hobby became a life's work for Janet," Obama said.

Rowley's award citation stated that "her work has proven enormously influential to researchers worldwide who have used her discovery to identify genes that cause fatal cancers and to develop targeted therapies that have revolutionized cancer care."

Rowley, 84, has received many honors, including both the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science in 1998 and, most recently, this year's Genetics Prize from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. She continues to head an active laboratory that focuses on the connections between genetic changes and cancer, especially leukemia.

First established in 1945 after World War II, the medal was reinstated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to honor distinguished civilian service in peacetime. This year's other recipients were Nancy Goodman Brinker, Pedro Jos'e Greer Jr., Hawking, Jack Kemp, Kennedy, Billie Jean King, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird, Harvey Milk, O'Connor, Poitier, Rivera, Mary Robinson, Tutu and Yunus.

Ten previous Medal of Freedom recipients have been affiliated with the University of Chicago, including scientist James Watson, economists Gary Becker and Milton Friedman, and historians Hanna Gray and John Hope Franklin.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt