Dr. Janet Wolter, pioneering oncologist at Rush University Medical Center, dead at 93

‘She really led the way for generations of women she’s taught,’ according to Dr. Ruta Rao, medical director of Rush University Cancer Center.

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Dr. Janet Wolter.

Dr. Janet Wolter was a cancer-fighting pioneer at Rush University Medical Center.

Provided photo

All around the United States and beyond, there are physicians who refer to themselves as “WTMs” and “WTWs.”

Wolter-Trained Men and Wolter-Trained Women.Dr. Janet Wolter used the term to remind her medical students she’d taught them to be astute observers grounded in cutting-edge medical knowledge.

It was a call to excellence and a reminder to buck up when days were long and tough cases abounded, said Dr. Philip Bonomi, who recalls the pride he felt when she informed him: “Bub, you’re a WTM.”

“She was a legend,” said Dr. Ruta Rao, medical director of Rush University Cancer Center. “She really led the way for generations of women she’s taught. Even the men bragged about it. She was not just a leader in breast cancer patient care but breast cancer research.”

Dr. Wolter, 93, a professor at Rush University Medical Center, died Feb. 4 at her home in Lake View.

A Cubs fan, “She could see Wrigley Field from her back office window, and that pleased her greatly,” according to a stepson, Jeffrey Grip.

Young Janet grew up in River Forest, the daughter of a meatpacker. In a seventh-grade essay, relatives said she wrote of her determination to be a doctor. She went to Oak Park and River Forest High School and finished Cornell College in three years.

At the University of Illinois College of Medicine, “In my class of 165, 21 were women,” she once told Rush, “but the next year when everybody came back from the war, it went down to four women and 161 men.”

Dr. Janet Wolter was often one of the few women in the room in the early days of her medical career.

Dr. Janet Wolter was often one of the few women in the room in the early days of her medical career.

Provided photo

After graduating from medical school in 1950, she trained at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Duke University Hospital, then joined a polio ward at the University of Illinois Hospital.

In a 2016 essay for the medical humanities journal Hektoen International, she captured the mid-1950s scourge of polio, describing a unit filled with the rhythmic whooshing of iron lungs.

“We bought canister vacuum cleaners (some of the first) and an electrician who worked with us took them apart and reversed something (the brushes?) so that they blew instead of sucking,” she wrote. “This offered the patient a supply of constant positive pressure . . . and could even be run off of a cigarette lighter in a car. I had an old convertible at the time, and with the top down, a carefully maneuvered Hoyer lifter, a vacuum cleaner plugged into the dashboard and a nurse riding shotgun, we managed to take a number of these terribly confined individuals for a spin along Lake Michigan.”

In the early 1960s, she began working at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital with Dr. Samuel G. Taylor, “one of the first oncologists in the world,” according to Bonomi, Rush’s director of hematology-oncology.

Back then, “It wasn’t even called oncology,” Dr. Wolter said in a Rush oral history. “If the surgeon couldn’t remove the tumor, that was it.”

In addition to breakthroughs in chemotherapy and hormone treatment, “She led some of the clinical trials that are shaping the way we treat breast cancer patients today,” Rao said.

“You get a lot of satisfaction from being part of the answer,” Wolter once told Rush.

She was the first woman president of the medical staff. When she retired, she was the Brian Piccolo Chair of Cancer Research.

“She was an incredible doctor,” said Joy Piccolo O’Connell, widow of the Chicago Bears running back for whom the Piccolo center was named. “She was warm, kind and definitely a pioneer.”

Dr. Wolter would give patients her home phone number.

“They never abused it, and it meant so much to them,” she said in the oral history.

Dr. Janet Wolter.

Dr. Janet Wolter.

Provided photo

She was no-nonsense, though. She once told a cancer patient she’d found out was hitting the tanning booth, “If you’re going to do that, then don’t come back to see me.”

In 1973, she married Carl M. Grip, a dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology and head of the South Side Planning Board.In private, she used the name Janet Wolter Grip.He died in 1995.

Dr. Wolter’s home waspainted in some of her favorite shades of yellow. She was a gourmet who turned out exquisite salmon mousse, buche de Noel and croquembouche, a cream puff-studded Christmas tree.

If conversation at a dinner party was flagging, relatives would ask her to tell jokes.

“She knew — my best guess is — about 10,000 jokes,” Grip said. “If you gave her a topic or subject, she would just regale you.”

She loved opera, including “Nixon in China,” “Tosca” and “Don Giovanni.”

Dr. Wolter is survived by three stepsons, a niece, three nephews, seven step-grandchildren, eight step-great-grandchildren and five grandnieces and grandnephews.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Feb. 29 at the Cathedral of Saint James, 65 E. Huron St. She sang in the choir there for decades.

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