Chapter 04: A Year Away; Reorganization of the Basic Sciences; a Return to a Faculty Position

Chapter 04: A Year Away; Reorganization of the Basic Sciences; a Return to a Faculty Position



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In this chapter, Dr. Bowen talks about research and the working environment at MD Anderson. “The feeling of walking into M. D. Anderson in those days is hard to describe,” he said, “but it was a sense of the becoming a part of something that made you much bigger than you could ever be as an individual. And it is not just me. Everybody I knew had that sense.” He also discusses why he “never really wanted to spend my career anywhere but at M. D. Anderson.”



Publication Date



Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Professional Path; Research; MD Anderson Culture; Working Environment; Understanding the Institution; MD Anderson Culture; Institutional Mission and Values; The Researcher; Personal Background; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot; Research; Discovery and Success; Healing, Hope, and the Promise of Research; Dedication to MD Anderson, to Patients, to Faculty/Staff; Personal Reflections, Memories of MD Anderson; On Research and Researchers


James M. Bowen, PhD:

We wrote several papers, did lots of experiments, but when the end of the year came, in about April, in fact, of that year, I received a letter from the Sterling Winthrop Drug Corporation reminding me that I had signed a contract to come and work for them after one year at M. D. Anderson. I was very unhappy about this, but an agreement was an agreement. Plus the fact that Dr. Dmochowski did not have anything at that time available except an additional year of postdoc, and I had fallen in love again and was preparing to marry again, and I felt as though I needed a real job. So, in an atmosphere of some acrimony with Dr. Dmochowski, I finished up in August. I, once again, put my worldly goods in the car, drove out to northern New Mexico to marry my fiancé, and then, we left from the wedding reception in a hideously painted up little Mercury Comet, and drove as newlyweds to upstate New York to take a job at the Sterling Winthrop Research Institute, working once again on influenza. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that I never really wanted to spend my career anywhere but at M. D. Anderson. I had attained some independent funds and some agreements from my bosses at M. D. Anderson, that the annual symposium on Fundamental Cancer Research, which M. D. Anderson was now holding every year was, in fact, going to be chaired by Dr. Dmochowski in February of 1963, it was. And I had my own money, and obtained an allotment of time to come back to that symposium, arguing that this was one of the greatest collections of virologists, and there would be a real chance. We were working on influenza and measles at that time. But I began to see changes at Sterling Winthrop which made me nervous, because the company was not seeing profit from the drug studies, and there was pressure on them from various quadrants to begin to produce vaccines, because vaccines were in demand in those days. And they were told that they had a guy who really knew how to grow influenza virus, because as a graduate student, I had made influenza viruses for all the labs and for everybody. And so, I was transferred out of the drug testing unit into the vaccine unit, and my job was to oversee the inoculation of 400 dozen embryonated eggs a day in order to produce a very high quality, but with a very low profit margin vaccine, because we essentially were making it by hand. Even using a hand bottle capper. And I thought, there is no future in this for me. So, when I came to the symposium at M. D. Anderson in February of 1963, I began to reestablish contacts, and I met a man whom I had been greatly impressed by the name of Clark Griffin, an American Cancer [Society] Research biochemist who was doing really marvelous things. And they had a virologist in their group who was thinking of moving over to Baylor, and they wanted a young virologist to come in and do the virology that they were planning on doing as a part of their biochemistry department. Now, this was the Department of Biochemistry, not the section of Electron Microscopy and Virology in the department of Biology. And I said, "Yes, I would be very interested. Let me send you a CV." We actually had dinner together twice during that period of time, and a few weeks later, I wrote back to him with a copy of my CV and saying I would be very, very interested in an assistant professor position in the Department of Biochemistry. And time went by, and time went by, and time went by, and I didn't hear anything. And so, I called, and was told, not by Dr. Griffin who was out of town at the time, but by another young scientist who ultimately became an extraordinarily competent chairman of Biochemistry at M. D. Anderson, and retired as chairman of the department, but at that time, a young biochemist named Darrell Ward. Darrell said, "Jim, there is a problem. I don't think that we can appoint you," and I was just devastated. And I said, "Well, is there some weakness in my CV?" And he said, "No, I'm sorry. I really can't tell you. I can't discuss it with you." I thought, hmm, this is incredible! Well, about one month later, I received a letter from Dr. Dmochowski asking me if I would be interested in an assistant professor position in the section of Virology and Electron Microscopy, in the Department of Biology. That he had secured some funds that he didn't know he was going to have. Well, in retrospect, it was very clear. There was a discussion among the basic science group at that time. The chairman of basic sciences met a couple of times a month to talk about future plans and so forth, and Dr. Dmochowski's position was that if a virologist was coming to M. D. Anderson, he needed to be in virology, and besides which, Bowen had already proven himself in virology, and probably could have a reasonable future. And ultimately, he secured approval to offer me an appointment, and I immediately took it, not realizing that any politics had gone on before. And, over a period of time, that little glitch in the relationship was all smoothed out and everything went fine. And so, once again in July, this time in 1964, I brought my wife and our three-week-old daughter to Houston to join the Section of Virology and Electron Microscopy in the Department of Biology, and to become a part of this dream that I had intellectually become a part of as a postdoc here. And somehow I knew, in spite of the fact that in those days, scientists tended to advance in their career by moving from institution to institution. If you were being recruited by another institution, you usually made some advancement as a condition of your joining that institution. And that was a way of life in many fields in those days, particularly so in academics, and particularly in biomedical science. But, you know, from the day that I walked back in to take my position and went down to the supply room and was handed two lab coats, each with my name embroidered on in blue thread, I thought, I don't ever want to be anywhere else, and it is going to be my job to try to make myself valuable enough to this institution that they will want me to stay. It was the feeling I had. The feeling of walking into M. D. Anderson in those days is hard to describe, but it was a sense of the becoming a part of something that made you much bigger than you could ever be as an individual. And it is not just me. Everybody I knew had that sense.

Louis J. Marchiafava, PhD:

Did you consider any other cancer centers in the United States at that time?

James M. Bowen, PhD:

Not at that time. I had offers from time to time, but there were two things about it: first of all, I knew the people at M. D. Anderson . . . Dr. Clark, the president of this place and the guy that was in charge of everything, called me by my first name when he saw me in the hall. You know, just a little green virologist from the backwashes of Jack County. It turns out that being from the backwashes of Jack County was not a bad thing because I lived for part of my life in Fort Worth and I went to college at Midwestern in Wichita Falls. Well, Fort Worth is the home, among other things, to Texas Christian University, a university started by Dr. Clark's grandfather. And I got my bachelor of science degree from Midwestern State University, a college started by Dr. Clark's father, and which has a building dedicated to him there. So, there was some association there, and it was a very good association, and I loved it. So, I became part of the basic science program.

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Chapter 04: A Year Away; Reorganization of the Basic Sciences; a Return to a Faculty Position