photo of Janet Rowley via University of Chicago
Paper Dolls is both a biography and a history. It is a biography of the lives and marriage of two extraordinarily gifted individuals, Janet and Donald Rowley, and shows how these wildly imaginative and independent scientists forged a unique life together, how they influenced and helped each other grow. The book is also a history of scientific discoveries that weaves together the art of their research – Janet’s discoveries of startling genomic rearrangements (translocations) in human cancer cells and Donald’s many groundbreaking discoveries that ranged from the role of circulating antibodies in development to transplantation tolerance in patients. The efforts of both led to significant advances in medicine that have helped alleviate suffering, to defy the death sentence that so often accompanies a diagnosis of cancer. Their work has forever changed their respective fields.
In the focus on Janet’s work, Paper Dolls throws into sharp relief how she interweaved her dedication to her family and her laboratory. The title comes from the Rowleys’ children. As young boys in the 1970s, they thought their mom was playing with paper dolls on the kitchen table—dolls they couldn't so much as breathe near. However, those “dolls” were actually cut-out photographs of human chromosomes. Between working part time and raising her children, Janet analyzed those photographs and discovered the critical link between cancer and genetics that paved the way to one of the few successful cancer treatments now widely used in certain forms of leukemia.
The book serves to draw back the curtain from private life to reveal the intersections where science and life meet and influence each other. It serves also as a demonstration, especially for young women in demanding fields, that they need not compromise either their professional or their personal ambitions to enjoy a stimulating and fulfilling life. They can find a path like Janet’s—far from stereotypical, an example of uncommon possibilities.