March 1, 2024

Francis Peyton Rous: Known for Oncoviruses

Francis Peyton Rous (1879-1970) was an American scientist known for his work on tumor immunity, pioneering the use of radiation therapy. 

Born in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, he graduated from Harvard with a degree in chemistry. Like many scientists of his time, Rous first studied the natural sciences and then became interested in medicine after reading Louis Pasteur’s “Theories of Germs” as a young man. He had to complete his medical studies at Harvard as he did not have enough money to attend the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; at this time there were only two universities that offered training in experimental surgery: Johns ton and Johns Hopkins University.

About Francis Peyton Rous

Rous was appointed a professor at the Rockefeller Hospital in New York City and became a professor of biology at Columbia University. In 1928 he began his work on virus diseases. His most significant discovery was made in 1911, when he developed a tumor-produced chicken cancer that could pass from one animal to another.

In 1920 Rous was asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate an outbreak of Newcastle disease among poultry in Delaware, which later spread to twenty-eight states and resulted in more than two million deaths, mainly young chickens.

Life of Peyton Rous

Birth of Francis

Francis Peyton Rous was born on September 23, 1879 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. His father was a professor of mathematics at Harvard University. Rous attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from there in 1897. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Harvard College in 1902. He decided to continue his studies at the university’s medical school where he obtained his M.D.

His Education

For his medical training Rous enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University where he studied under one of the pioneers of surgery and cancer research, Louis Pasteur.

Rous continued his postgraduate studies at Harvard Medical School. He was awarded his doctoral degree in 1907. After obtaining his master’s degree from Harvard University, Rous decided to continue his studies at the Johns Hopkins University where he studied under the doctor Louis Pasteur.

In 1907 Peyton received his doctorate for a thesis on “Animal cancer”.

Peyton personal life

After finishing his studies, Peyton Rous returned to Boston where he established a medical practice. He married his friend Edith Kennedy whom he had met when they were studying at Harvard University together. Rous and his wife had four children; two sons and two daughters.

From 1907 to 1910 Rous’s career followed the usual pattern of a young doctor. He worked in different hospitals as a physician and surgeon and then in 1910, he moved to New York where he got acquainted with the work of William Coley that led to the development of immunotherapy.

Rous career

Francis Peyton Rous began his cooperation with the University of Rochester. In 1914 he became associated with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and soon after he was appointed head of its laboratories in tumor immunity.

At this time, subjects were still treated with toxic drugs that had unknown side effects. Peyton Rous wanted to develop methods using radiation specifically mediating prophylaxis and treatment of tumors. He developed new methods for producing antibodies in laboratory animals, which were then injected into the body of an experimentally sick patient, triggering an immune response in the patient’s body that inhibits the growth of cancer cells.

Research about Cancer

In 1911, Francis Peyton Rous made a discovery of chicken cancer that infected and killed chickens easily, but only in a limited number of species. For three years Rous worked non-stop trying to find the cause of this new disease. He was able to develop a method for producing chicken cancer in the laboratory.

Peyton Rous used these methods to create new vaccines against tumor tissue and injected them into chickens. The experiment was successful and dozens of chickens were successfully recovered from certain cancers after the vaccines were given to them.

Research about Blood transfusion

In 1913 he established a unit of blood transfusion in the University of Buffalo. He conducted experiments on dogs, monkeys and rabbits. He succeeded in extracting serum from the blood of dogs and rabbits, which contained antibodies against tumors.

Research about Influenza

In 1917 Peyton Rous worked with Samuel Gee at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research to study influenza. The general theory was that the flu could be used as a weapon against cancer, but it had no effect on it. However, Francis Peyton Rous proved that flu can cause leukopenia in children with cancer and make them weaker than healthy children or adults. You can read more about this research here.

Research about Physiology

In collaboration with his brother, Francis Peyton Rous was also interested in physiological problems. In 1918, the brothers studied the heart and circulatory system of birds in the laboratory. The article about their discovery was published by the Journal of Medical Research.


Francis Peyton Rous died in 1970 due to abdominal cancer. He is buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

Awards and honors

In 1946 Rous was awarded a medal by the American Cancer Society. In 1966 he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Edward C. Kendall. Peyton received this award for his discovery of the essence of immunology and tumor therapy.

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