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“He Uses His Brain, Sometimes Long After Others Have Stopped” — A Memorial for Peter Nowell, MD

nowell 1938
In the spring of 1938, a teacher at a small progressive grade school in Rose Valley, Pa., wrote of one young pupil: “Might well go far with science.”

That child was Peter Nowell, who was honored and celebrated last week at a memorial event held at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania following his death Dec. 26, 2016, at age 88. Nowell’s older brother, Foster “Jerry” Nowell, Jr., shared Peter’s school evaluations as part of his remembrance on March 1, joining more than a dozen speakers, from Penn President Amy Gutmann, PhD, and Perelman School Dean J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, to former students and lab technicians who worked closely with Nowell, as well as family members and neighbors. Their anecdotes, jokes, and perspectives painted the picture of a beloved, brilliant, sometimes-goofy, always-supportive, devoted educator, who more than lived up to his fifth-grade teacher’s prediction of achievement as a scientist. (The title for this blog post is from Nowell’s third-grade teacher’s report.)

”He is Quick to See Relationships and Causes” — Nowell’s Grade 4 Report

nowell 1936
Nowell, who earned his medical degree at Penn in 1952 and was on the faculty of the School of Medicine from 1956 through his retirement in 2006 (and remained active in emeritus status beyond), is most famous for a discovery in 1960. That year, Nowell and a then-PhD student, David Hungerford, identified what became known as the Philadelphia chromosome. It was the first chromosomal abnormality—the first genetic mutation—that was linked to cancer. That discovery opened the door to subsequent discoveries of hundreds of genetic mutations and epigenetic alterations underlying numerous types of human cancers, and to the development of targeted therapies for many of them. Nowell went on to chair the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn and to serve as the first director of what is now the Abramson Cancer Center.

Beyond his most-famous discovery, Nowell had a vast influence on the course of modern medicine. In a 1976 paper in the journal Science, he predicted the pattern by which cancer cells accumulate numerous genetic mutations over time and adapt to survive and evade treatments—in the process, defining the conceptual basis for precision medicine and predicting the potential of immunotherapy for cancer. At Nowell’s memorial, Dean Jameson described the vision in this paper as “chilling” and said that, along with the first description of the double-helix structure of DNA, it is the paper he would most recommend reading.

“It was incredibly prescient for him to come up with that hypothesis based on limited data,” commented David Roth, MD, PhD, the Simon Flexner Professor and chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, in the new issue of Penn Medicine magazine, which features a cover story on Nowell’s life and enduring scientific legacy. “It was almost like magic.”

nowell 1970
For Nowell, whose loved ones credit with immense humility for a man so accomplished, it was less a matter of magic or intellect than of luck. As Gutmann pointed out in her remarks last week, when Nowell was awarded the Franklin Medal for his scientific achievements in 2010, he said, “I’ve always said my major collaborators were the Princes of Serendip.”

Devotion to Education — to Empowering Learners

Those who knew Nowell were quick to remark that they counted themselves lucky to have worked with him, not only due to his scientific brilliance, but also because of his emphasis on the value of education.

“He was the most inspirational person I met in academic medicine,” said Kojo Elenitoba-Johnson, MD, the Peter C. Nowell Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Center for Personalized Diagnostics at Penn Medicine.

Jonni Moore, PhD, asked those assembled at the memorial to stand if they had benefited from Nowell’s inspirational and educational influence—training under his tutelage, attending his legendary lab meetings, or gaining insights from his counsel. Nearly half the crowd of 200 attendees took to their feet.

nowell 1980s

“As I look back, I think that I couldn’t have had a better mentor,” said Moore, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine who trained with Nowell as a postdoc and remained a close collaborator for years once she joined the faculty at Penn.

“On a weekly basis, his lab would fill with students ranging from elementary school children to visiting scientists,” Moore wrote with fellow Penn Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Professor Mark Greene, MD, PhD, in a memorial of Nowell published last week in Science. “His door was always open to dis­cuss any late-breaking scientific finding (he always knew the current topics). Physicians from many specialties in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania would drop by to explore ideas and to learn, but his fa­vorite time was spent with young scientists.”

Although I never met Nowell myself, I can attest that his devotion to education was how he himself wanted to be remembered. Nowell passed away just two weeks after I took the reins as editor of Penn Medicine magazine, inheriting a vast archive of files of miscellaneous Penn documents from the nearly three decades of the publication’s existence. At the top of the thick Peter Nowell file is a note from Nowell to Penn Medicine’s inaugural editor, Marshall Ledger, dated 6 June 1991: “Dear Marshall: Since you’re building a file, I thought this would give you some idea of my other enthusiasm—education—even though it’s in a rather unusual context. Sincerely yours, Peter.”

nowell letter

Click to view the full letter as a PDF

Attached are four pages of typewritten remarks that Nowell delivered at the School in Rose Valley, the progressive school he and his brothers had attended as children, where his teachers wrote descriptive reports instead of issuing letter grades. His father had helped build the school and his mother had taught there; later, Nowell’s own children attended, and one son and daughter-in-law joined the faculty. Nowell’s speech emphasized the philosophy of education he embraced, both through his involvement with that school and in his role at Penn’s medical school. The main principles included learning through experience; respecting and valuing other people, even when they are different; and treating each student as an individual.

Expanding on that last point, he wrote: “In medical school, it means that the students recognize the necessity for directing their own educational experience and, even more importantly, realizing that if they are going to be competent and responsible physicians, they are going to have to continue educating themselves for the rest of their lives. When I first meet with my small student group in Pathology each year, I tell them: ‘I’m not here to teach you anything; I’m here to help you learn.’”

But there were some things that Nowell did teach to his students. Speaking at the memorial last week, Bill Sherwin, MD, PhD, recalled the life philosophy that Nowell imparted to him when he was an anxious MD-PhD student at Penn in 1969: “Each day, do your best. Each day, do something you enjoy. When you leave this life, make sure the world is a little better off than when you entered it.”

Nowell’s first-grade teacher wrote that young Peter “runs to meet responsibility.” There is no question that he did more than run to meet the responsibility of his life’s philosophy, leaving the world far more than just a little better than when he entered it.

Read more about Nowell’s vast influence as a scientist and educator—both through his own achievements in his lifetime, and rippling forward into the future of precision medicine for cancer and other diseases—in Penn Medicine magazine.

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