Peter C. Nowell, a former Penn professor and 1952 graduate of the School of Medicine who revolutionized cancer research, died at the age of 88 on Dec. 26 in Newtown Square, PA.
He died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease, the
Nowell’s work helped identify genetics as a viable cause of cancer for the first time. His discovery fueled years of scientific research that eventually led to the creation of Gleevec — a drug that transformed chronic myeloid leukemia from a deathly disease to a chronic one that could be kept under control for a long time.
Together with David A. Hungerford, who at the time was a graduate student at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Nowell discovered the “Philadelphia chromosome,” one of the 46 chromosomes that is abnormally short in every patient with chronic myeloid leukemia.
The two scientists’ discovery led to two major realizations. The first was that genetic change was an important factor in cancer development. The second was that cancer could form from a single cell that had the abnormality.
Despite the monumental implications of his findings, many resisted Nowell’s study at first. During the time of his discovery in the late 1950s, few scientists believed that flawed genes could cause cancer. Most believed viruses to be the cause.
“If you look back at the history of cancer research and advancement, back to the 1950s, very little was known about the mechanism that really stimulated cancer,” Penn professor and director of the Abramson Cancer Center Chi Van Dang said. “[Nowell caused] a major shift in the thinking that cancer was caused by the DNA sequence within the cells.”
Nowell was eventually recognized for his contributions to cancer research. He received the Lasker Award, widely known as the American Nobel, in 1998. At Penn, he was awarded the School of Medicine’s highest honor, the Distinguished Graduate Award, as well as the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Award of Merit.
He served as the Gaylord P. and Mary Louise Harnwell Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn Medicine from 1967-1973. He was also the first director of the Penn Cancer Center, now known as the Abramson Cancer Center.
“He was always a revered pioneer here,” Dang said. “We always really proudly tell everyone that the cancer center [at Penn] started with the first director being Dr. Peter Nowell.”
His colleagues at Penn remembered Nowell as a scholar who remained modest and stayed true to his professions of being a scientist and a professor.
“He had very little interest in administration and little interest in anything but his teaching, his research and his family, he was a very admirable individual.”
“He was seen as someone who was full of ideas,” David Roth, a Penn professor and director of the Penn Center for Precision Medicine, said. “He liked to take walks around the biopond with faculty or trainees ... was an incredible mentor, and just a really good guy. He [was] seen as scientist’s scientist.”