James E. Bowman

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Obama aide's father broke color barrier in Chicago

CHICAGO — Dr. James E. Bowman, a widely recognized expert in inherited blood diseases and population genetics, was the first tenured African-American professor in the University of Chicago's Biological Sciences Division.

Dr. Bowman, 88, died of renal cancer Wednesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center, according to the university and his daughter, Valerie Jarrett, who is a senior adviser to President Obama.

On Thursday, Jarrett recalled that in all the times she played chess with her father, she won only once — he never let her win just to boost her ego.

"The first time I beat him in chess, I felt like I'd really earned it," Jarrett said. "And that's what he wanted me to feel. He wanted me to know that life is hard, you have to work really hard in order to achieve. He didn't believe in shortcuts."

He took a similar approach to at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, where he was an assistant dean for minority affairs at the U. of C's Biological Sciences Division.

"His goal was to try to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who came to Pritzker, but he really wanted to emphasize that they had to be excellent," said William McDade, deputy provost for Research and Minority Issues at the University of Chicago. "He didn't want to see different standards for minority students, he just wanted to have the most excellent minority students that we can train."

Dr. Bowman was born Feb. 5, 1923, in segregated Washington, D.C. After graduating from Howard University in 1943, he entered Howard's medical school that fall and was then drafted into the Army as part of a three-year medical training program.

Dr. Bowman eventually came to Chicago for an internship at Provident Hospital, then accepted a residency at St. Luke's Hospital (now part of Rush University Medical Center). According to the University of Chicago, he was the first black resident to train at St. Luke's.

Around this time, he met Barbara Taylor, the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. The couple married in 1950.

Dr. Bowman was chairman of pathology for three years at Provident Hospital before being drafted again into the military, serving as chief of pathology for a laboratory in Denver.

After his release, he found himself being offered jobs at pay far less than that of white counterparts, his daughter said. Unhappy with pervasive racial discrimination., Dr. and Mrs. Bowman left the country in 1955 and settled in Shiraz, Iran, where they worked with other foreign doctors to establish Nemazee Hospital. Dr. Bowman served as the hospital's chairman of pathology.

While in Iran, Dr. Bowman encountered favism, a genetic blood condition found in certain Iranian ethnic groups that makes people unable to break down a toxin found in fava beans. The disease fit into Dr. Bowman's lifelong specialty of inherited blood diseases and the populations they affect.

The Bowman family — Dr. Bowman's daughter Valerie was born in Iran — returned to Chicago in 1961. The next year, the University of Chicago invited Dr. Bowman to join its faculty as an assistant professor of medicine and pathology and director of the hospital's blood bank. He was promoted to associate professor and received tenure in 1967.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Bowman took a stance against screening all adults for sickle cell disease, as was being mandated in many states. Dr. Bowman argued that such laws smacked of racism and eugenics and that collecting such information could make many blacks unemployable and uninsurable.

"Dr. Bowman never sat still and allowed people to say something that he felt was untrue or unjustified," McDade said. "He didn't care who he offended or what feathers he ruffled. He was going to tell you the truth as he viewed it and you're going to listen to him."

Published in The Record on Sept. 30, 2011
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