Bertha Bouroncle was born in 1919 in Peru, the fourth of five children. Her father was also a medical doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical school. She followed in his footsteps to graduate at the top of her class at Saint Marcos National University Medical School in Peru. However, it was her contribution to The Ohio State University that earned her the recognition she deserved.
Bouroncle earned her medical degree in 1948. She was the only woman in her graduating class and came first in her class earning her the title of valedictorian. She was given a scholarship to study for one year anywhere in the US. Bouroncle came to Ohio State and remained a resident and fellow for 3 years until she became the first female chief resident at Ohio State in 1953. After her clinical years, Bouroncle began as an assistant professor of hematology/oncology in 1954. She was promoted to associate professor in 1957 and became the first female full professor in the state of Ohio in 1970. Eventually, in 1989, she retired and was given the title professor emerita. She was known for her amazing work ethic and passion throughout her career.
Her greatest accomplishment was discovering hairy cell leukemia in 1958. Hairy cell leukemia is a rare form of cancer that is found in the blood/bone marrow that aggressively affects white blood cells in the body. When these unhealthy blood cells accumulate they are known as leukemia cells and they increase competition for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets that are necessary for the immune system. In the past, hairy cell leukemia was considered a fatal disease. Thanks to the research at the OSUCCC- James, hairy cell leukemia can be treated with specific treatments for each patient.
Bertha is considered a pioneer for Ohio State’s focus on cancer and leukemia treatment. Her discoveries in hematology and oncology ultimately began an ongoing legacy at Ohio State in cancer research and treatment. Bertha Bouroncle was instrumental in the foundation of The James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State, which is now the third largest cancer hospital in the United States. Bertha’s legacy lives on in the groundbreaking work of the James, which has recently been given an “exceptional” rating by the National Cancer Institute, and has been recognized as a model of patient care by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
Bertha continued her legacy even after retiring in 1989. She continued to give back to the community by treating patients for eight hours each day and creating the Bertha Bouroncle and Andrew Pereny Chair of Medicine in order to raise funds for cancer research. She was constantly in the research centers and taught as many students as she could.
Bouroncle sadly passed away in August of 2013, but her legacy will endure as both a prodigious scientist and inspiration for young women interested in pursuing the field of science.