On his first day as St. Luke’s Hospital’s first black resident physician, Dr. James E. Bowman made a powerful statement that would set the tone for the rest of his career. Upon being told that he would need to use the back door because he was African American, Bowman stated that he was a resident and that he would be using the front door. He walked right in, paving the way for the hospital’s other black employees to do the same.
This is how Dr. James Bowman led his life, fighting injustice in the medical community and beyond. Bowman would go on to become an incredibly influential figure in the fields of pathology and inherited blood disorders, a strong advocate for ethical approaches to genetic testing, and an impactful mentor for many students throughout his lifetime.
Dr. Bowman’s research career began in Iran, where he came across a very ill patient, who seemed to miraculously recover after a blood transfusion. Bowman later diagnosed the young patient with favism, a genetic disorder caused by a specific genetic enzyme deficiency called G6PD deficiency. Individuals with this deficiency have mutations in the G6PD gene, which result in decreased levels of the glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase enzyme1. Without enough of this enzyme, red blood cells are unable to protect themselves from the damaging effects of reactive oxygen species. The consumption of fava beans can increase levels of reactive oxygen species, which causes a type of anemia called hemolytic anemia as a result of red blood cells breaking down at a faster rate than can be replenished by the body. This genetic disorder affects as many as 400 million individuals throughout the world.
Bowman’s discoveries took him around the world and resulted in a better understanding of favism and G6PD deficiency, but his impact extends far beyond that research. Later in his career, he advocated for black communities most affected by the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act and shined a spotlight on the ethical considerations and implications of mass testing of these populations, reminding those in power that they needed to consider bioethical issues and the right to not be tested. He also went on to serve on the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Working Group of the Human Genome Project, where his medical and scientific training—in addition to his understanding of the social and political foundations of medical decisions—allowed him to confront the ethical aspects of genetics before bioethics was considered its own discipline.
Given the many challenges Bowman had to overcome throughout his lifetime, he was committed to passing his knowledge and advice on to the next generation of students so that they did not have to struggle the way he had. He was a powerful advocate for minority scholars whose legacy at the University of Chicago is still felt today.
Dr. James E. Bowman was an incredibly influential figure in the field of inherited blood disorders, a strong proponent of taking an ethical approach to genetic testing, and an impactful mentor for many students throughout his lifetime. His lifetime of discoveries and work continues to impact our current understanding of hereditary blood disorders while his memory continues to inspire.
1Cappellini MD, Fiorelli G. Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Lancet. 2008 Jan 5;371(9606):64-74. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60073-2. Review.