By Kevin McKeough
When Janet Wolter, MD, first began practicing medicine, the polio vaccine hadn’t yet been discovered, and cancer was so feared that it wasn’t discussed openly.
By the time she retired as Brian Piccolo Chair of Cancer Research and professor of internal medicine at Rush at the end of November 2009, Wolter had provided thousands of cancer patients with hope and made important contributions to the advances that have transformed cancer care and outcomes.
To honor Wolter, Rush is hosting a seminar of former residents and fellows on Feb. 27 and will name a new teaching area after her. The Janet Wolter, MD, Clinical and Educational Conference Room will provide a comfortable, high-tech home for the education of residents and fellows and for collaboration among clinicians of various specialties. The room will be built as part of the renovation of the 10th floor of the Professional Building later this year to house Rush’s new outpatient cancer center. The educational focus of these tributes reflects Wolter’s enduring influence on generations of physicians.
“She served as a role model, for me and many other oncologists who trained at Rush; for our internal medicine residents and students; and especially for many female physicians,” says Philip Bonomi, MD, Alice Pirie Wirtz professor of medical oncology and director of hematology-oncology at Rush, who trained with Wolter as an oncology fellow. “She’s a very fastidious physician who has taken excellent care of patients. There’s no one better,” Bonomi continues. “On Monday mornings, the oncology team goes through new cases, and to this day her remarks are incredibly insightful and pertinent, not only in breast cancer but other cases.”
Seventh grade plans
A native of River Forest, Wolter declared her intention to be a doctor in a seventh grade essay. In the late 1940s, she first came to what would become Rush during a clerkship at Presbyterian Hospital while attending the University of Illinois College of Medicine. (Presbyterian eventually merged with both St. Luke’s Hospital and Rush Medical College to form what now is Rush University Medical Center.) World War II had just ended when she was accepted into medical school.
Janet Wolter, MD, in 1954, when she was chief resident at the University of Illinois Research and Education Hospital.
“A lot of the guys weren’t out of the service yet,” Wolter recalls. “In my class of 165, 21 were women, but the next year when everybody came back from the war, it went down to four women and 161 men.”
After receiving her medical degree in 1950, Wolter completed training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Duke University Hospital, the University of Illinois Research and Education Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital before joining the U of I faculty. There, she treated polio patients, who were confined in iron lungs that enabled them to breathe.
“All the equipment back then was big and rigid and heavy,” Wolter remembers. “We had no computers. Electrocardiograms (EKGs) were done on photographic paper, and every floor in a hospital had a darkroom where you’d develop the EKG.”
The advent of the polio vaccine in the mid-’50s eventually led to the end of her program, and Wolter joined the Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital faculty in 1963 to collaborate with pioneering physician Samuel G. Taylor III, MD, in his work treating cancer patients with hormones and chemotherapy. “It wasn’t even called oncology. There wasn’t even a name for it then,” she remembers. “There really wasn’t anything that could be called cancer care. If the surgeon couldn’t remove the tumor, that was it.” Continue reading