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Marching to a Different Beat: Chicago alum charts the active heart
Marching to a Different Beat: Chicago alum charts the active heart
Medicine on the Midway | March 2007
March 2007

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In an odd twist of fate, the man responsible for one of the most familiar instruments in medicine—the gel electrode used to monitor heart rates—was kicked out of the University of Chicago medical school his first time around.

Odder still, with time out for military service and a visiting professorship at Oxford, he continues to work here—almost seven decades after he first set foot on campus.

Donald Rowley is no stranger to coincidence, as many people who call his Hyde Park home can attest. Those who ask to speak to “Dr. Rowley” receive a prompt but polite “Which Dr. Rowley?” in return: His wife, Janet Rowley, is a well-known geneticist and one of the most liberal members of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

The two didn’t always share the same title. Married the day after Janet graduated from medical school in December of 1948, Donald was still about a year short of earning his MD. “Our friends enjoyed introducing us as Dr. and Mr.,” he said. During a time when the quota for females in a class was three out of every 65 medical students, the pair was an anomaly.

They met 11 months earlier on the university’s ice-skating rink. Donald, recently returned from a postwar stint in the Philippines, was taking a break from grad school when he spotted Janet struggling to skate. “She needed help. She was clumping around,” Rowley said. A Minnesota native and hockey player, he made it his business to assist.

Now, from behind a thick pair of glasses, Rowley talks about the Chicago campus that he remembers: One where the ice rink was under Stagg Field, not on the Midway. Where 63rd Street was a “real eye-opener,” filled with jazz music, tumultuous activity, and bars that by law didn’t allow women to sit at the actual bar. “Naturally, I had a forged ID,” Rowley said.

In 1941, tooling down the Midway in a Model A Ford jalopy shortly before the start of his freshman year, Rowley caught his first glimpse of the university. He had earned a scholarship for tuition—$300 back then—but was overwhelmed by the ornate gothic buildings looming before him.

It wasn’t long before Rowley overcame his initial impression and took control of his education. If he considered a class unnecessary, he skipped it. The professor in a social science course one day called on him by saying, “You, young man in the skivvy shirt.” Rowley left the class after that, having “better things to do,” and never went back.

Generally, Rowley found the biological sciences sequence “riveting,” did very well in chemistry and not so well in the physical sciences. The medical school admitted him in 1943 and expelled him 18 months later in ’45 for reasons Rowley cited as “asking too many questions, arguing and other defects of character.”

“I was perfectly willing to call a fool a fool, and I’d tell them so,” he reasoned, adding that the college had failed to prepare him for medical school. “They taught you to argue and raise questions. Medical school was all memorization.”

A year before he started medical school, Rowley had enlisted in the army, as virtually all medical students did on the eve of America’s entrance in World War II. He left in April of ’46, and still recalls the Dean’s parting words: “Rowley, being dismissed from medical school isn’t the end of the world, but at least try to get an honorable discharge.”

With the Dean’s words in mind, Rowley boarded a boat of 5,000 troops headed for the Philippines. Six weeks later—after a stop in Honolulu, Hawaii where Rowley risked being court marshaled after jumping ship (“The important thing there was that we did not get drunk and did not bring back alcohol,” he said.)—he arrived in northern Luzon to work at a first aid station of Japanese prisoners. His time wasn’t exclusively devoted to the injured, though. In a camp positioned between mountains and isolated beaches, Rowley learned to body surf and bought an old out-rigger canoe.

Autopsies and a Mercedes Benz

When he returned safely to Chicago, Rowley convinced Pathology Chairman Paul Cannon to let him work in his laboratory, where Rowley managed his own project and studied amino acids and protein metabolism and nutrition with Cannon. “He was a smart man,” Rowley said, calling Cannon a “father figure.” Rowley’s individual project led to the publication of two single-authored papers in the Journal of Immunology.

In 1950, Donald and Janet both won highly competitive internships with the United States Public Health Services, after which they moved to Bethesda, Md. There, Donald worked at the National Institutes of Health as an immunologist. Four years later, the NIH offered Rowley tenure. He said that he “started looking elsewhere the same day.”

Rowley continued where he’d left off when he returned to the university in ’54. Cannon remained chairman and insisted that if Rowley wanted to join the pathology department, he must know some pathology to justify his position; so, he committed Rowley to studying cadavers.

By way of autopsy service, Rowley noticed that only certain arteries tended to be clogged in diseased hearts and asked why. His peers proposed a wide range of hypotheses, and Rowley did too, taunting the “fat boys” in charge by suggesting acts like shaving as the cause of artery disease. However, he also explored real possibilities. He considered high-tension points in the arteries, where plaque accumulated like sediment at a river bend, and started making correlations between plaque build up and lipid foods.

At the time, the medical center’s department was considered among the best in the United States, and it was during the next four years that Rowley made a monumental medical breakthrough. With the help of a young genius lab assistant who had an amplification of Rowley’s own “variety of character defects,” he figured out how to measure people’s heart rates—no matter whether they were mobile or motionless—and birthed something that hospitals use by the thousands to this day.

Heart rate epidemiology intrigued Rowley. Even today scientists can’t say for certain all of the affects heart rate has on a person. But accurately measuring them over 24 hour periods was not an easy proposition in the 1950s. Prior to the modern gel electrodes, patients wore clunky metal plates on their wrists or ankles and had to remain completely motionless in order for physicians to conduct EKGs.

Rowley began exploring ways to monitor a heart rate for 24 hours, seeking a normal heart rate reading and the subsequent distribution of a normal heart rate. He began with a watch, reasoning that because heart rates were measured at the wrist (where the radial artery pulses), and people wore watches at their wrists, the latter should somehow be able to track the former.

During the early experimental stages, a “shabby, ill-kempt student” wandered into Rowley’s lab. His name was Peter Stoner, and he’d started at the university at age 14. At 17, after a few years of work in the physics department, he approached Rowley.

The employment office warned Rowley not to take Peter on, saying he was unemployable. But Rowley saw himself in the young student and invited him to join the lab, which they converted into an electronics workshop.

“(Peter) wasn’t bound by and rules or laws,” Rowley said. He wouldn’t punch in or out, so Rowley had his secretary do it. When Peter’s manias led him to order a red leather chair for himself, Rowley asked the secretaries to pass all suspicious orders to him. And then one day purchasing called. They wanted to know why Rowley’s lab had placed an order for a $7,000 Mercedes Benz, an item that the secretaries had though, in ’58, was laboratory equipment.

Stoner’s eccentricities were matched by his genius. He’d taught himself about transistors, and when Bell engineers came to help on the project, Stoner taught them about transistors too. In the next six years, the engineers who came and went through Rowley’s lab soldered wires to dimes, filled tubes with mercury and placed electrolytic-coated dimes on their wrists and forearms and over their upper sternums, at the apex of their hearts, in attempts to gain noise-free readings. Like conventional, large metal electrodes of the time, they picked up only scrambled electrical signals when the subject moved.

It was Rowley who serendipitously observed how exactly a dab of gel could go a long way. The electrolytic gel was a perfect electrode, he realized, so long as the wire did not touch the skin, which resulted in altered electrical resistance.

Rowley covered a dime in the coating paste, attached it to his chest and immediately gained a reading free of electrical noise from his muscles. From there he tested the readings by applying sharp blows to his chest, doing push-ups and other activities. The gel-coated electrodes provided perfect readings each time, and by 1959, Rowley’s lab had been converted once again, this time into a nurse’s station that could report 24-hour heart rates.

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