Thursday, September 20, 2012
Most doctors don’t start their medical career teaching elementary students in a North Dakota two-room schoolhouse. Yet it was from this unusual background that the “father of bone marrow transplantation,” Leon Jacobson, received his calling to the medical field.
Leon Jacobson first started teaching after he dropped out of college for a lack of funds. While he cared deeply for his students, Jacobson soon discovered that he was more interested in keeping them healthy, than keeping them interested in schoolwork. Jacobson found some financial assistance and migrated from the prairie schoolhouse to the University of Chicago medical school, graduating in 1939. Jacobson’s financial aid did not cover the cost of school and as a result he found odd jobs at the university to make ends meet, jobs such as x-raying rats and mice. While this particular side-job was routine, it got Jacobson interested in radiology. The field was still young, and soon Jacobson was one of the country’s top experts on the effects of radioactivity on blood and blood production.
Also working at the University of Chicago were the scientists of the Manhattan project, steadily pushing towards the creation of an atomic bomb; scientists the U.S. government needed to remain healthy despite their constant exposure to radioactive materials. Given Jacobson’s expertise in radioactivity, the government hired him to care for the nuclear scientists.
Even while he protected America’s top physicists, Jacobson continued his own research. Still experimenting with mice, Jacobson discovered that if bone marrow was destroyed by radiation, the spleen would take over blood formation until the bone marrow had a chance to repair. He realized that could make a transplant possible for bone marrow cancer patients. As the transplant integrated into the patient’s body, the spleen could form blood, keeping the patient alive until the donated marrow could once again perform the task of blood production. Jacobson’s work led directly to radical and new developments in radiation therapy – research that has offered millions of cancer patients the world over a chance at survival.
After working much of his adult life striving for new ways to combat cancer, Leon Jacobson died on this date in 1992. Yet his legacy lives on, through his pioneering research and in the people whose lives he helped save.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
Eugene Goldwasser, Almont North Dakota Centennial Website, [accessed, Nov. 01, 2011], http://www.sims-almont.us/History/Jacobsontribute.html
Madeline Marget, interview with Dr. Leon Jacobson, February 28, 1992, [accessed, Nov. 01, 2011], http://www.hematology.org/Publications/Legends/Jacobson/1619.aspx