Elwood Jensen, PhD, who died Dec. 16 at age 92, left behind a lasting legacy of research achievements that touched many lives. His discoveries transformed breast cancer treatment and continues to save or prolong more than 100,000 lives annually. For this, he has been proclaimed the "Father of the Nuclear Receptor Field.”
Jensen’s work at the University of Chicago, the University of Cincinnati and several other institutions also impacted the lives of innumerable colleagues and future scientists. One was UC’s President Santa Ono, PhD.
"I first met Professor Jensen when I was a freshman at the University of Chicago,” Ono recalled. "When I matriculated at UofC in 1980, Elwood was director of the Ben May Laboratory of Cancer Research and was already an icon in medical research. I met Elwood briefly at a student/faculty social event at my residence hall and he invited me to speak with him at greater length in his office about my career interests.
"I will always remember our first meeting in 1980. I had forgotten about the student/faculty reception and ran to the event in T-shirt, shorts and cleats after playing intramural soccer to try and make it to the tail end of the event. I remember that my legs were covered in mud. Despite my appearance, Elwood spoke to me about scientific research and life as a scientist and extended an invitation to talk longer in his office. Needless to say, I made sure I was better dressed for our second meeting.
"I went to see Elwood in his office at the Pritzker School of Medicine and he spent more than an hour speaking with me about my interest in medical research. He was warm and gracious and encouraged me to seek out a young viral oncologist, Professor Elliott Kieff, now of Harvard Medical School, who would give me my first opportunity to work in a laboratory. In subsequent years I would attend some of Elwood's lectures and was blown away by the elegance of his research on estrogen receptors.”
Thirty years later, Ono would meet several times with Jensen after becoming UC provost and appreciated the support he continued to receive from one of his first mentors. "I will forever be grateful for his encouragement of my career,” Ono says.
Jensen, distinguished university professor in UC’s department of cancer biology and George J. and Elizabeth Wile Chair in Cancer Research at the time of his death, was on faculty at the University of Chicago for 33 years before reaching mandatory retirement age in 1990. Forced retirement did not end his work; he would serve as scholar-in-residence at Cornell Medical College, Alexander von Humboldt Visiting Professor at the University of Hamburg and Nobel Visiting Professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
Fortuitously for Cincinnati, Sohaib Khan, PhD, UC professor of cancer biology, met Jensen at a Karolinska Institute seminar in early 2002.
"I asked him whether he would consider spending a few months in Cincinnati,” Khan says. "I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he would certainly consider the proposal. By the end of our dinner conversation, I found out that he actually went to Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, and used to play tennis at Hyde Park Country Club.”
Jensen agreed to come to UC for a few months that year, and stayed for the rest of his life. He enjoyed Southwest Ohio, Khan says adding that it helped remind him of his youth in Springfield. "He did things in style. While in Springfield, he joined a flying club and on the weekends would fly over to Miami University in Oxford to pick up his date, his first girlfriend who became his first wife!”
"When Dr. Jensen joined our group it was like a dream come true,” Khan continued. "His comments and critiques during the lab meetings were so educational to not only me but more importantly to the students and postdoctoral researchers. He taught me to always consider alternative solutions to any scientific problem, and not to shy away from bold ideas. His presence at UC certainly elevated the institution’s national visibility – particularly so when he was awarded the Lasker Award in 2004.”
Jensen shared the Lasker -- the "American Nobel” -- with Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Pierre Chambon of the College de France, Strasbourg. Before his death, Jensen donated his winged Lasker trophy along with many of his other awards to UC’s Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions.
Jensen disappointingly never received the early morning phone call from Stockholm pronouncing him the latest Nobel laureate. Khan says that since Jensen’s death he has received numerous emails from leading scientists remembering Jensen, many noting how much he deserved the Nobel Prize.
The Academic Health Center honored Jensen with two international symposia in 2003 and 2009. The events attracted scientific luminaries, including a dozen members of the National Academy of Sciences, an elite scientific academy of which Jensen himself was a member. Those numbers dwarfed the crowd in attendance in 1958 when he presented his new concept about estrogen receptors at a Vienna conference. Standing in front of an audience of five – three of whom were speakers yet to have their turn at the lectern – he went ahead and spoke about his pioneering research.
Jensen continued working until a year ago. In recent years he moved about in a motorized scooter sporting a tall orange flag for safety and was frequently seen at College of Medicine events and the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies. Despite the precautions he took, a few years ago he was hit by a truck at the intersection of Eden Avenue and Goodman Drive; in a typical "Jensen resilience” fashion, he recovered completely and was back on his scooter.
His research achievements brought Jensen to events throughout the world and provided him with many unique opportunities. One was serving on the jury of the Academy of Achievement, which brings promising students together with national heroes and leaders.
"Years ago, at the award ceremony, Dr. Jensen was sitting next to Shirley Temple. During the event, Steven Spielberg asked Elwood if he would introduce him to Shirley. Dr. Jensen got a big kick out of it, that it had to be a scientist who introduced two famous Hollywood personalities to each other,” Khan says.
Jensen also frequently told stories of his Golden Gloves boxing days at Wittenberg College. A notoriously shy young man, he advanced to the regional competition during his junior year. A close decision eliminated him from reaching the state finals. "I was two years younger than everybody in my class so I was never very big, and I had an inferiority complex socially. Winning those fights did something for me psychologically,” he was quoted as saying in an April 2008 UC Magazine feature article on him.
That confidence continued, giving him the courage in 1947 to climb the Matterhorn, the famed 14,691-foot peak in the Alps. He would often use his climb as a metaphor for looking at problems differently. The peak wasn’t scaled until 1865 when climbers finally approached from the northeast side of the mountain. All previous attempts from the opposite side of the mountain were unsuccessful.
During the 1950s investigators had been focusing on estrogen’s influence on the enzymes involved in biosynthesis. Jensen, however, took a different, unique approach. Instead of asking what the hormone does to tissue, Jensen decided to learn what happens to the hormone itself.
"This alternative way of approaching the problem led to the famous discovery of the estrogen receptor,” Khan explained.
"His discovery of the estrogen receptor made a paradigm shift in our understanding of steroid hormone action. It launched the field of nuclear receptors, which has profoundly impacted the discipline of molecular medicine,” Khan continued. "His group went on to purify the estrogen receptor and raise antibodies against it. These were highly significant developments in the field, because, in collaboration with Pierre Chambon, they led to the cloning and structural determination of the estrogen receptor gene and prompting an exponential increase in our understanding of how nuclear receptors function as transcription factors.”
No matter what prompted Jensen to approach the issue differently, there are thousands of women alive today who are glad that he did.