Peyton Rous The Story of Peyton Rous and Chicken Cancer

Peyton Rous The Story of Peyton Rous and Chicken Cancer

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  1. Peyton Rous – Biographical

  2. Peyton Rous – Facts

  3. Peyton Rous – Nobel Lecture: The Challenge to Man of the Neoplastic Cell

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1966

  • Peyton Rous

  • Charles B. Huggins

Peyton Rous


Peyton Rous was born in Baltimore in 1879. His mother’s ancestors were Huguenots who settled in Virginia after the Edict of Nantes. Just before the Civil War in the 1860’s her father, foreseeing disaster, bought land in Texas, moving his big family there after it ended. There he became a judge «riding three counties», and the family throve.

His father, a Baltimorean of English forebears, married his mother while visiting Texas, and returning home became an exporter of grain to Europe. His father died early, leaving his mother with three small children and only scanty means to support them. Yet she would not return to the security of her Texas kin because she was bent on obtaining the best possible education for her children; and what with makeshifts of one sort or another in Baltimore she did it!

During his second year in the Johns Hopkins Medical School – after getting a B.A. from its University in 1900 – Peyton Rous scraped the skin of a finger on a tuberculous bone while doing an autopsy and soon a «corpse tubercle» formed there. The disease travelled to his axillary glands, and after their removal he was told no more could be done than «to go away and try to get well». Peyton Rous went to Texas, there an uncle got him a job «for his keep» on a ranch near Quanah; and in early spring a friend living in the town told him he was sending «two covered wagons» full of hardware to the Spur Ranch, 125 miles west of the railway, and asked if Peyton would like to go along with them. On reaching «The Spur» Peyton Rous was given the job of helping on horseback in the «round ups» of cattle scattered on its huge expanse, and of course he slept on the ground like everyone. During exhilarating months there Peyton learned a superb fact not taught at college, namely that uneducated men can be as great-hearted and lovable as those who know much. This has been a continual source of cheer to him ever since.

Back at the Medical School after having lost (!) a year, he graduated in 1905 and became an interne in its Hospital. Then, finding himself unfit to be a «real doctor», he turned to medical research instead, and for this purpose became an Instructor in Pathology at the University of Michigan on a beggarly salary. His work in the laboratory turned out to be mainly that of a technician because the University had small funds only, but with noble generosity Professor Alfred Warthin, head of the Department, came to his rescue, actually offering to «teach Summer School» in his stead, and give Peyton the sum thus earned, if he would study German hard and use the money to go for the summer to a certain hospital in Dresden where morbid anatomy was taught. Dresden in 1907! Exquisite city in an exquisite land, with no hint of war in the air!

After his return Dr. Warthin told Peyton Rous that the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was casting a wide net of grants for beginners, and he asked him if Peyton would like him to apply for one that would free Peyton for experimental work. That grant enabled Rous to find out enough about lymphocytes to be deemed worth publishing in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, edited by Simon Flexner, who was also the director of the Institute; and after another few months Flexner asked Rous to take over the laboratory for cancer research which Flexner was quitting to learn more about poliomyelitis, then crippling many American children.

Since these happenings in 1909 the life of Peyton Rous as a working scientist has been halcyon. Soon after beginning it he was able to prove that some «spontaneous» chicken tumours, to all appearances classical neoplasms, are actually started off and driven by viruses which determine their forms as well. These findings led him to spend several years trying to get similar agents from mouse cancers; but, failing in this, he left off working with tumours in 1915, turning instead to the study of other problems in physiological pathology. The results of the study encouraged Rous to undertake further efforts in the same field, and he did not return to the theme of cancer until 1934 when a unique opportunity was offered to him. Dr. Richard Shope, a close friend on the Institute staff, asked Rous to work with a virus which Shope had discovered and found to be responsible for the giant warts often present on the skin of wild rabbits in the southwestern U.S.A. Were they perhaps real tumours? Rous could not resist this generous challenge and he has worked ever since not only with the «warts» themselves – which proved to be benign tumours from which cancers frequently take off – but with other problems of neoplasms.

Investigation on cancer means more to the public than that on any other disease. It may be partly for that reason that Rous has received more than a few honours and awards. Many universities have given him honorary degrees. He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of England, as also of its Royal Society of Medicine, and that of Denmark, and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The Weizmann Institute of Science has appointed Rous an Honorary Fellow and the Academy of Medicine in Paris a Foreign Correspondent. The Kovalenko Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Cancer Society were given to him. Rous also received a Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association, as also a United Nations Prize for Cancer Research; and during 1966 a National Medal of Science has come to him from the U S.A., and the Paul Ehrlich-Ludwig Darmstädter Award from the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 1920 Peyton Rous became a Member of the Rockefeller Institute, and in 1945, when 65 years old, he became a Member Emeritus but continued to be busy in the laboratory as was the case until his death. Recently the Rockefeller Institute has become the Rockefeller University. It supported the work of Rous as amply as was his good fortune in the past.

Peyton Rous married Marion Eckford deKay; she was the daughter of a scholarly commentator on the arts. They brought to each other different likings that have delightfully widened the enjoyment of their lives together. They have three daughters: Marion, Ellen and Phoebe. Marion’s husband, Alan Hodgkin is a Professor of Biophysics at Cambridge University and received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1963. Phoebe married Thomas J. Wilson who died in 1969; he was formerly Director of the Harvard University Press.

Dr Peyton Rous* died on the 16th of February, 1970.

* In this biography, which is based on Rous’s own autobiographical note, nothing has been said about the work on blood and liver which occupied him between 1915 and 1934. In particular Rous has not mentioned the pioneer research on blood transfusion with J.R. Turner and O.H. Robertson which led to the establishment in 1917 of the world’s first blood bank near the front line in Belgium.

This autobiography/biography was written
at the time of the award and first
published in the book series Les Prix Nobel .
It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures . To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

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  • J Exp Med
  • v.201(3); 2005 Feb 7
  • PMC2213042
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J Exp Med. 2005 Feb 7; 201(3): 320.
doi:  [ 10.1084/jem.2013fta ]
PMCID: PMC2213042
PMID: 15756727

Peyton Rous

father of the tumor virus
Heather L. Van Epps
Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer
JEM News Editor
Copyright © 2005, The Rockefeller University Press
This article is distributed under the terms of an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike–No Mirror Sites license for the first six months after the publication date (see ). After six months it is available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 4.0 Unported license, as described at ).
This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.


In 1910, Peyton Rous identified a transmissible avian tumor virus, a discovery that began the journey from tumor virus biology to tumor biology itself.

Peyton Rous loved wild flowers. A self-proclaimed disciple of Carl Linnaeus, he published a short-lived column in the Baltimore Sun at the age of eighteen called “Wild Flowers of the Month.” With that column, however, his career as a nature writer began and ended. But botany’s loss was cancer biology’s gain.

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Peyton Rous at his microscope (1923). Photo provided by The Rockefeller University Archives.

Lessons from the Plymouth Rock hen

In 1909, fresh out of medical school and with only 2 years of research under his belt, Rous joined the staff of the Rockefeller Institute and was promptly put in charge of the laboratory for cancer research. Soon thereafter, he was given a barred Plymouth Rock hen that had a large tumor growing on its breast. Recent descriptions of unusual transmissible growths in various animals had sparked his attention, so Rous attempted to transfer his chicken’s tumor. When he injected small pieces of the growth into hens from the same bloodline, but not chickens of other varieties or birds of other species, they too developed tumors ( 1 ). Although avian cancers were by no means a new discovery at that time—fibromas, myomas, carcinomas, and sarcomas had all been described in birds—they had never been successfully transmitted from one bird to another.

Close examination of Rous’ tumor revealed a spindle-cell sarcoma that looked like a classical neoplasm except that, unlike most neoplasms described at that time, it was transmissible. Rous later found that adoptive tumor formation did not require transfer of intact tumor cells, and could be achieved using cell-free filtrates that passed through a Berkefeld filter (to exclude bacteria) or supernatants from emulsified tumor cells ( 2 ). He thus concluded that the tumors were caused by a filterable agent, as viruses were then known. He published these findings in a pair of seminal articles in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1910 and 1911 ( 1 , 2 ).

Rous, however, did not report the first tumor virus. A Danish duo, Ellerman and Bang, beat him to the punch in 1908 by demonstrating that a filterable extract could transmit leukemia among chickens ( 3 ). However, the scientific community largely ignored this finding, as leukemia was not recognized as a neoplastic disease until after 1930. Rous’ work, although not ignored, was met with some indifference. The prevailing attitude was that tumors that could only grow in chickens must bear little resemblance to human cancers (thought to be noninfectious in origin) and were unlikely to provide any useful information. Rous was eventually vindicated and his discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in 1966 (he noted the work of Ellerman and Bang in his Nobel lecture) ( 4 ).

Cancer biology blossoms

Rous went on to confirm that other avian tumors could also be transmitted and thus the original tumor was not an oddity ( 5 ). Soon thereafter, he left the study of Rous sarcoma virus (RSV), as it became known, to pursue other scientific endeavors. But RSV strains have been studied in laboratories ever since.

In 1958, Howard Temin and Harry Rubin developed the focus assay, in which RSV-infected cells were overlaid with agar to keep progeny virus localized ( 6 ). This technique allowed for the separation of individual viruses and was critical for the identification of spontaneous and temperature-sensitive mutant viruses, which were the key to the identification of src (for “sarcoma,” later v-src) as the RSV gene responsible for the transforming potential of the virus (for review see reference 7 ). This later led to the discovery of c-src as the first cellular protooncogene, and the identification of the src homology domains (SH2 and SH3) as mediators of protein–protein interactions. Meanwhile, characterization of RSV as an RNA virus provided the first evidence of the existence of reverse transcriptase.

Reflecting on his career in his Nobel Prize lecture ( 4 ), Rous credited Linnaeus with opening a wide door for him into natural history, which eventually led him to his study of cancer. Rous, in turn, opened a wide door for countless others into the field of tumor biology.


1. Rous, P. 1910. J. Exp. Med. 12:696–705. [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ]
2. Rous, P. 1911. J. Exp. Med. 13:397–411. [ PMC free article ] [ PubMed ]
3. Ellerman, C., and O. Bang. 1908. Centralbl. Bakteriol. 46:595–609.
4. Rous, P., and J.B. Murphy. 1914. J. Exp. Med. 19:52–69.
5. Temin, H.M., and H. Rubin. 1958. Virology. 6:669–688. [ PubMed ]
6. Martin, G.S. 2004. Oncogene. 23:7910–7917. [ PubMed ]
7. Nobel Foundation. 1967. Les Prix Nobel En 1966. Imprimerie Royale P.A. Norstedt & Soner, Stockholm, Sweden. 162–171.

Articles from The Journal of Experimental Medicine are provided here courtesy of The Rockefeller University Press


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