Lucas County’s Walter Heston profiled in Iowa Heritage Illustrated

For immediate release January 11, 2006



Contact: Jeff Morgan,, (515) 281-3858

(DES MOINES) – The rise of Lucas County’s Walter Heston from an Iowa farm boy to a world-renowned cancer researcher is chronicled in the most recent issue of Iowa Heritage Illustrated, a quarterly magazine published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The story is written by Heston’s great-nephew, State Representative Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown), who takes readers on a journey from a farmhouse near tiny Woodburn, Iowa, to the upper echelons of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, where Heston’s work from 1940 to 1975 impacted the future of cancer research around the world.

“It is only in reading about and pasting together his life’s work that I became aware of his contributions in charting a new course for cancer research,” Smith writes in the story. “At a time when the average citizen had little hope of surviving cancer, when the study of genetics was still ‘on the crest of cancer research,’ (he) had the scientist’s ability to look cancer in the eye and not flinch.”

Born in 1909, Heston earned a degree in zoology in 1932 from Iowa State College and in 1936 became the first Ph.D. graduate in zoology from Michigan State College. His career took him to Texas, New Mexico and Maine before he settled in Maryland at the National Cancer Institute, where he specialized in mammalian genetics. During his long career at NCI, he established breeding colonies of a particular strain of mice that were ideal for cancer research.

“Heston was the mammalian geneticist who established a relationship between specific genes and the occurrences of certain cancers,” Smith writes of his great-uncle. “The importance of (his) work with mice lay in his organization and maintenance of the colony that was the basis for much of the genetic work at the National Cancer Institute.”

Heston retired in 1975 and moved to Florida, where he enjoyed raising mangoes and citrus fruit in his backyard. He died in 1998 at age 88.

To order a copy of Iowa Heritage Illustrated, call (319) 335-3916 or visit the State Historical Building’s museum store at 600 E. Locust in Des Moines or the Western Historic Trails Center store at 3434 Richard Downing Avenue in Council Bluffs.

The State Historical Society of Iowa is a trustee of Iowa’s historical legacy and an advocate for understanding Iowa’s past. It identifies, records, collects, preserves, manages and provides access to Iowa’s historical resources. Its dual mission of preservation and education serves Iowans of all ages, conducts and stimulates research, disseminates information, and encourages and supports historical preservation and education efforts of others throughout the state.


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