by Tian Lu

James Edward Bowman was born in Washington, D.C. on February 5, 1923. He grew up in a segregated environment which he described saying “there was complete segregation. … One could only go to theaters, movies, restaurants in the black neighborhood.” He graduated with honors from Dunbar High School and earned his bachelor’s degree in Biology from Howard University in 1943. Inspired by the example of his father, a dentist, Bowman set out to become a doctor; soon after graduating, he was drafted by the US Army and earned his medical degree in 1946 as part of an Army-sponsored 3-year accelerated program. He graduated as a First Lieutenant and desired to become an officer but was prevented from doing so due to segregation. He then completed internships at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and Provident Hospital in Chicago followed by his residency at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago; he was the first African American resident.

After serving as chairman of pathology at Provident hospital for 3 years, Bowman was drafted again, serving as chief of pathology at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver from 1953-1955. After completing his military obligation, Bowman and his wife were “not happy to [be] living, even in that time, under segregated conditions” and decided to leave the United States. They moved to Iran after being introduced by a friend to a new hospital there, Nemazee Hospital, and Bowman served as chairman of the Department of Pathology for 6 years.

During this time, Bowman’s research concentrated on favism, a metabolic disorder caused by a mutation in the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, or G6PD, in red blood cells. This mutation makes blood cells unable to protect themselves from reactive oxygen species, a highly toxic chemical byproduct of metabolism. For favism patients, the consumption of fava beans increases the levels of these reactive oxygen species, leading to death of the blood cells and anemia (a condition caused by lack of blood cells). Bowman focused on the genetics of favism and collected blood samples around the world to study the genetics of favism in different populations of people. He collaborated closely on favism with the University of Chicago, which had first reported the G6PD deficiency and its association with a potentially fatal reaction to primaquine, an anti-malarial drug that happens to increase reactive oxygen species to kill malarial parasite.

Impressed by Bowman’s work, University of Chicago professor Alf Alving recruited him in 1962 as an assistant professor of medicine and pathology and director of the hospital’s blood bank. Bowman continued studying G6PD deficiency in U-Chicago’s Malaria Research Unit and traveled to Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ethiopia with his family to study the genetics related to mutations in this enzyme. His research on G6PD not only explained the mechanism of favism but also guided the individualized treatment of malaria.

His impact extended beyond his studies. In 1972, when Bowman had just earned tenure, the Nixon administration approved funding for the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act, imposing sickle cell screening laws for adults. Sickle cell anemia, caused by a mutation in the hemoglobin gene, is an inherited disorder in which red blood cells adopt a ‘C’-like sickle shape, reducing their oxygen-carrying capacity. As a hematologist, a scientist specializing in blood disease, Bowman soon realized that these laws would influence the African-American population, which has a higher probability of carrying the mutated gene for sickle cell anemia. Bowman warned against the potential for discriminatory movements toward the African American community, and he served on federal oversight committees to regulate sickle cell screening and education. He later also served as director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center funded by the NIH, and he advocated for further education and therapy to help people better understand test results.

Bowman was the University of Chicago’s Biological Sciences Division’s first tenured African American professor. His more than 90 publications have contributed to the fields of human biology, politics, and ethics. From 1986 to 1990, he was also the medical school’s Assistant Dean of Students for Minority Affairs. Bowman was also a member of the African and African American Studies Commission. He was an outspoken supporter of minority academics pursuing positions in clinical medicine, and he was eager to improve the experience of the next generation of medical students.

After his death at 88 in 2011, the Bowman Society was established at the University of Chicago to support minority scholars. Bowman made history as an African American despite racial injustice and his impact and legacy extend beyond academia and continue to inspire generations of scientists.

Tian Lu is a graduate student in the Harvard Biological and Biomedical Sciences. He uses fluorescent microscopy to study spatial-multiomics.

Cover image, by H. Alexander Talbot via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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