A Pioneering Oncologist

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Summer 2020

When Janet M. Wolter began practicing medicine in the 1950s, the word “oncology” was not yet part of the medical lexicon. Initially focusing on polio patients — in the days before the polio vaccine — she began her cancer care career in 1963 and went on to become a pioneer in the field.

“She was not just a leader in breast cancer patient care but breast cancer research,” says Ruta Rao, medical director of the Rush University Cancer Center.

Wolter (HS, medicine, 1952–53), the inaugural Brian Piccolo Chair of Cancer Research at Rush University Medical Center, died on Feb. 4, 2020, at her Chicago home. She was 93.

Her early initiatives included a 1970 clinical trial that assessed the value of a brief regimen of chemotherapy after a breast cancer operation — even if the operation was supposed to have removed all the cancer. That “adjuvant,” or adjunct to surgery, treatment proved successful. Her research also included trials of hormone therapy.

When Wolter herself developed breast cancer in 1984, she participated in many clinical trials, advancing her strong advocacy of them.

Wolter was also a highly respected mentor who would tell the physicians she mentored that they were Wolter-trained men (“WTM”) or Wolter-trained women (“WTW”) and needed to live up to that. “It was a call to excellence and a reminder to buck up when days were long and tough cases abounded,” noted the Chicago Sun-Times.

The first woman president of the Rush medical staff, Wolter received the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project’s 2004 Investigator Lifetime Achievement Award. She continued working 50-hour weeks into her 80s.

“I love it,” she said. “All these people are so interesting, and they’re so grateful for whatever you do for them. It’s the most satisfying thing you can do.” NAG