Dr. Paula Marie Pitha-Rowe, a Johns Hopkins virologist whose research on cancer and the body's immune response to HIV added to the understanding of how those diseases work, died of a heart attack March 5 at Union Memorial Hospital. The Tuscany-Canterbury resident was 77.
Colleagues said she successfully married her knowledge of viruses with an understanding of the mechanisms that drive cancer.
"Paula was an internationally renowned scientist whose research led the way for the development of interferon. As one of the first basic scientists in the comprehensive cancer center at Hopkins and the department of biology, she was the 13th female faculty member in the School of Medicine to attain the rank of professor," said Dr. William G. Nelson, director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Born Paula Mahr in what is now the Czech Republic, she was the daughter of a lawyer and a judge. She considered becoming a physician and earned a doctorate from the Czech Academy of Sciences at Prague in 1964. She later trained at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague, the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada, the Curie Institute in Paris and the Salk Institute in California. She joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1971. She became a full professor in 1985.
"Paula was the first full-time research scientist recruited to the nascent cancer program at Johns Hopkins, where she helped steward cancer research with her own work on virology and interferon. The cancer program grew into the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center as she became a mentor and leader," said Dr. Nelson.
Hopkins oncologist Dr. Stephen Baylin said, "Paula was not only a scientific colleague; she was also a dear friend. She was one of the first basic scientists in the Cancer Center, and that was also the direction I sought for my career. She approached science in a way that I wanted to, so I looked to her as a role model. In recent years, her discoveries impacted my work as an epigenetics scientist in ways I could never have anticipated."
Dr. Pitha-Rowe was a professor of oncology, molecular biology and genetics in Hopkins' biology department and at the medical school.
"She was an immensely knowledgeable, well-informed, fun and compassionate person," said a friend, Kausik Datta, a Hopkins researcher who lives in Baltimore.
She received the 1996 Milstein Award for excellence in interferon and cytokine research. In 2005, she received the G.J. Mendel Honorary Medal for Merit in Biological Sciences. She was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Her husband, Dr. Wallace Prescott Rowe, an internationally known virologist and cancer researcher, died in 1983.
Dr. Pitha-Rowe was the author of more than 200 papers in scholarly journals and served on the editorial boards of numerous professional publications. She served on national and international scientific committees. She retired in 2013 but remained in the classroom.
She was an accomplished cook who was known for her soups and desserts. She annually hosted a Christmas cookie baking evening for her students. She was also devoted to her grandchildren.
"She had a presence that was almost regal," said a friend, Ann Hubbard, a Hopkins colleague. "She was one of those people who successfully kept up with all her friends. She loved to travel and meet with those friends. She was social and she cared about people."
Dr. Pitha-Rowe collected art and filled her apartment with paintings and drawings.
"Her home was like walking into a gallery," said Dr. Hubbard. "It was a pleasure to go there. Your eyes were blessed."
"She was incredibly generous with her time and expertise, always willing to help other scientists," said her daughter, Ulla Pitha, who works in investment management and lives in Baltimore. "She was a strong supporter of women in science and helped support the careers of numerous young women throughout the scientific community."
Friends said Dr. Pitha-Rowe led an active life and enjoyed yoga. The day of her death, she had taught a class on the school's Homewood campus and attended a university function.
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
In addition to her daughter, Dr. Pitha-Rowe is survived by a son, Dr. Ian Pitha, a Johns Hopkins physician; and two grandchildren. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.