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October 25, 2012

Former Bassett doctor and Nobel Laureate dies

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, physician in chief at The Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in 1956 and a recipient of a Nobel Prize for his bone marrow transplantation research, died Saturday at the age of 92 in Seattle, Wash.

Thomas, along with Drs. Joseph W. Ferrebee, Theodore Peters Jr. and David A. Blumenstock, completed the first bone marrow transplant in history in 1956 while physicians 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,” Bassett President and CEO Dr. William F. Streck, 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 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.

Thomas felt strongly that great patient care, teaching and research went hand in hand, and he made the following observation: “Teaching is necessary if we are to have well-trained doctors in the future. Research is necessary to acquire the new facts that will eventually provide answers to the many unsolvable problems we see around us every day. In order to do research one must examine critically currently accepted ‘facts,’ the best antidote known against dogmatism and pedantry. Patient care, teaching and research, therefore, make up a triad necessary to any hospital in the forefront of medicine today.”

Peters recently commented on his colleague and friend, “I hunted with Don a lot; he was a better shot than I was. 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 Dr. 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.

Alternatively, a resident may choose to design his/her own project. Residents have access to the resources of the Bassett Research Institute.

Research projects are displayed and presented at the annual E. Donnall Thomas Research Day.