The One That Got Away
Jonathan Nyce was the third consecutive namesake in his family. Always fascinated with his ancestry, he once researched his family tree, going back to the Eighteenth Century, when a female member of the family married a native American Indian.
His grandfather Jonathan Nyce had come from Trappe, Pennsylvania, and was a builder. His father, Jonathan Jr., had been born in 1925, growing up around Collegeville, a rural blue-collar northern suburb of Philadelphia.
The Nyces were a prominent family in the area, and Jonathan Jr.’s Uncle Wesley was a daredevil stunt pilot, with his own touring aerial show. In 1939 he’d bought the Pottstown Limerick Airport for the knock-down price of $50,000 before becoming a test pilot for the American Air Force.
“Uncle Wes tested B49s,” said his nephew proudly. “One time he didn’t bail out in time, and crashed into a dump. . . . he wasn’t hurt though.”
Unfortunately, Wesley Nyce’s luck didn’t hold out. In 1948 the fearless flyer was killed during an aerial display, when his stunt plane failed to come out of a roll.
“It was a tragedy,” said Jonathan Jr. “He was killed in front of his family.”
Jonathan Jr. also held a pilot’s license, but joined the U.S. Navy as a teenager, during the Second World War. Soon after his discharge in November 1945, he met a pretty young girl of Polish descent named Emma Dusea, at a local dancehall. The two found much in common, sharing a passion for ballroom dancing, and were soon dating.
“We met dancing,” said Emma. “And we’ve been going to dances ever since.”
On February 26, 1949, they married in Delphi, Pennsylvania, and settled in Skippack, Pennsylvania, where the mechanically gifted Jonathan Jr. found a job running a hosiery mill.
“We had ninety-six machines,” he remembered. “I guess you could say I designed things, and I made special stockings for showgirls.”
Before long Emma became pregnant, and on May 26, 1950, Jonathan Wesley Nyce was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Named after the family flying ace, he was the first of four sons Emma would bear Jonathan Jr. Two years later David was born, followed by Michael in 1955, and their youngest son Richard came two years later.
Money was tight in the Nyce household and Jonathan Jr. often had a tough time making ends meet on the scant wages of a stockingmaker. So when Jonathan was four, the family moved to Gettysburg, where his father found a better paying job at another mill, as well as moonlighting for several others for extra money.
Later Jonathan would often tell a fanciful story of how in 1953, his father narrowly missed making a huge fortune.
“My father influenced me because of something he didn’t do,” Nyce would cryptically explain to U.S. 1 newspaper in 1999. “He worked around the clock one night to design the machinery to knit the first pair of pantyhose. But because he had a new family, he was unable to capitalize on that discovery, whereas his partner was able to run with it.”
According to Jonathan, his father then gave him savvy business advice, which he had lived by ever since: That if he was ever in a similar position, he should “capitalize” on the opportunity, as there may not be another.
“I honestly think that’s one of the things that later drove Jonathan,” said his future mentor at East Carolina University, Dr. Wallace R. Wooles. “He wasn’t about to make that mistake again.”
Today his father, now 80, lays no claim to inventing the first pantyhose-manufacturing machine.
“I don’t know,” he says wistfully. “I doubt that I invented it.”
In 1955, the Nyce family moved again, this time to Norristown, and Jonathan began first grade at St. Patrick’s School, where he made his first Catholic communion.
As a child, Jonathan was a loner, preferring his own company to that of the other children in his primary school. He had difficulty adjusting socially, and was a serious, quiet boy, who largely lived in his own make-believe world.
But he had a vivid imagination and loved to write stories and poetry.
“He wrote beautiful poems,” said his mother, Emma. “He was very good.”
As a young child, Jonathan was fascinated by science, and was always doing experiments of one kind or another. He dreamed of becoming a doctor.
“I guess in our family, pilots and doctors are the main occupations,” said his father, as his sons would later be split between both professions.
In 1957, the Nyce family finally settled down in a large ranch-style house on Mill Road in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, where Jonathan Jr. and Emma live to this day.
“We moved here when Jonathan was seven,” said his mother. “Our baby [Richard] was just born.”
Growing up, Jonathan and his brother Michael both suffered from acute asthma and were prone to attacks at any time. It was a terrible physical handicap for a child, making Jonathan feel vulnerable and insecure.
“It’s hard to imagine something worse than not being to breathe,” he would later explain.
By the time he was 12 years old, Jonathan was six feet tall, standing head and shoulders above his grade school friends. But he soon put his height to his advantage on the school basketball court, where he discovered a passionate love of the game.
Jonathan played center in grade school and also regularly played pick-up games with his father and three brothers, in their Mill Road back yard.
“We’d play a lot of basketball,” said Jonathan Jr. “We had a lot of fun.”
When the tousle-haired blonde boy started at Methacton High School, directly behind his home, he was as “skinny as a beanpole.”
Jonathan was “little better than average” academically, according to his father, and his favorite subject then was English. The future medical pioneer displayed little obvious aptitude for the sciences at this point.
“He loved to write,” said his father. “He was always interested in the medical field and then he got more interested as he got older.”
Methacton had a solid reputation as a quality public high school, with a flexible curriculum tailored to each pupil’s needs.
Jonathan’s gigantic size—he would ultimately reach six feet, four inches—set him aside from the other boys. But beneath his quick wit and geniality lay a sensitive, painfully shy boy, who never truly felt comfortable in social situations.
“He was the biggest guy in the school,” remembered Eugene Hallman, who became close friends with him in seventh grade, when they took several classes together. “He wasn’t one of the most popular kids in school, but we got along.”
Jonathan was soon picked to play for the school’s basketball team, the Methacton Warriors, where he proved an effective defensive center guard. He also represented the school at tennis, as well as being active in student government and selling advertising for the student newspaper, Smoke Signals.
His best friend at Methacton was Samuel Colville, who also happened to be the school’s second tallest boy. According to their classmates, both boys vied for the attentions of a pretty girl named Sue Wessner, who briefly dated both of them. Samuel Hamme, a fellow Methacton student, says Sue was as “outgoing” as Jonathan was “introverted.” Soon after the junior prom, where Sue was Jonathan’s date, they split up, remaining close platonic friends until they left school.
Jonathan Nyce might have been tall and handsome, but there was also something awkward and ungainly about him. He was nervous around girls, seldom venturing outside the security of his small circle of friends.
“He wasn’t what you’d call a ladies’ man,” said Hamme, who was also on the Warriors basketball team. “He just really wasn’t.”
He remembers Jonathan as “quiet, reserved, but a nice guy,” and difficult to get close to.
“I didn’t party with him that much,” said Hamme. “He wasn’t considered one of the more popular kids.”
Eugene Hallman also remembers his friend as “fairly backward,” when it came to dating girls.
“He was awkward,” said Hallman. “But we were the same in that way.”
All through his high school and college years he never had a proper girlfriend after Sue, although he did manage to find a date for the senior prom. And while his friends went out on dates, he preferred to study and pursue his own scientific experiments.
“Jonathan was always interested in medicine as a teenager,” remembered his father. “He always did a lot of experiments.”
One day when he was seventeen, his parents came home to discover an “awful” smell, coming from the kitchen.
“He had a raccoon in a pot on the stove in Clorox,” said his father. “He decided he’d cook it and take the meat off because he wanted to see its skeleton.”
His mother explained that Jonathan had obtained the raccoon carcass from a furrier, to study its anatomy.
“But that was nothing out of the ordinary,” she explained. “He was just learning.”
Jonathan and Eugene Hallman co-founded Methacton’s Explorers troop, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts. They recruited several other boys into the group, selecting criminology as their specialty.
Twice a month the Explorers would meet at Jonathan’s house in Mill Road, where his mother would serve refreshments.
“Jonathan wanted to become an attorney,” said Hallman. “We would study cases the police were looking at. And there were some [case histories] the police would put together that we would all read and go through.”
The Explorers troop also went on field trips, visiting several Pennsylvania State Police barracks, where they attended seminars, occasionally going out on calls with the troopers.
“We would watch how they handled some of the cases,” said Hallman. “But we were really interested in the lawyers’ side of it. Not so much the police stuff.”
Jonathan’s father also played a role in the Explorers troop, organizing several weekend canoeing trips for them down the Delaware River.
Both boys were also in the same advanced Chemistry and Algebra classes, where Nyce was a straight “A” student. And they often socialized after school and on weekends, when Hallman got to know the Nyce family.
Every Sunday, Jonathan and his family attended the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on North Trooper Road, Norristown. They were devout Catholics, always dressing up in their best clothes for Mass.
And according to his parents, Jonathan and his brothers were all well-behaved, never touching drugs or drink like some of the other children.
“We never had any problems with any of the kids,” said Emma Nyce. “Jonathan was just there for everybody.”
In his senior year, Jonathan Nyce played basketball for the Warriors against Ridley High School at the University of Pennsylvania’s legendary 9,000-seat Palestra sports arena.
“He’s a guy who understood the game,” said fellow teammate Hamme. “He was a coachable guy who would do what was expected of him. He wouldn’t throw himself around, [and] played good defense.”
Eugene Hallman was at the game as a spectator and remembers the stadium full to capacity, as several other high schools were competing that day in regional play-offs. Unfortunately the Methacton Warriors were soundly beaten by Ridley, and it was the last game Jonathan Nyce would ever play for them.
In 1968, at the age of 18, Jonathan Nyce became the first member of his family to attend college, when he was accepted at Philadelphia’s Temple University. His parents couldn’t afford the fees, so he put himself through college, doing a variety of jobs in local hospitals, and even taking a part-time job in a shoe store.
He still lived at home. Every morning his father would take him to Norristown station to catch the train to Philadelphia, and then collect him from the station at night.
“Jonathan was working on being a doctor,” said Jonathan Jr. “He’d come home really late at night and make his own dinner.”
He soon put his talent for dissecting animals to good use in the university’s biology laboratories. But it took him eight years to obtain his undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree at Temple, by which time he had decided to concentrate on medical research.
In the early 1970s, Jonathan Nyce started dating an orthodox Jewish girl named Sylvia. Soon after they met, he proposed and they married, settling down in an apartment near his parents. But there would be problems with their religious differences.
“Sylvia was nice and she was very good,” said Emma Nyce. “She was well-educated, which we weren’t, and she let us know that, more or less.”
As Sylvia only ate kosher food and did not observe Christmas or other Catholic holidays, there were problems when she came to visit his family in Collegeville.
“I would always go out of my way to make the things that they liked,” explained Emma Nyce. “But she was always worried about what we had for dinner, because she didn’t eat certain things and all.”
At Temple the young enterprising student was doing well working for his Ph.D. He had started selling freelance medical articles to newspapers and magazines. In May 1977 Philadelphia magazine carried a seven-page feature article by Jonathan Nyce entitled “Message From a Small Chromosome.”
The well-written piece focused on the discovery of the Philadelphia chromosome, a genetic defect found only in patients suffering from a rare form of cancer called chronic granulocytic leukemia (CGL). The chromosome was discovered in 1960 at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nyce interviewed several of his Temple professors. But the article also revealed Nyce’s keen sense of medical history, and perhaps how he already saw his place in it.
“Today,” wrote Nyce, “solemn portraits of the University of Pennsylvania’s past medical greats line the wide, polished corridors and lavish staircases of the old medical school. Between classes a procession of students and faculty traverse the great stretches of hall, and small groups collect beneath one or other of the gilt edge frames to exchange notes or discuss a difficult lecture problem.”
And perhaps the highly imaginative young medical student saw a portrait of himself one day adorning the university’s wall of honor.
In 1978, Jonathan Nyce was awarded a master’s degree in molecular biology. Five years later he received a Ph.D. in biology from the prestigious Fels Research Institute at Temple University’s School of Medicine, for a thesis on preventing colon cancer in mice.
Fels Professor of Microbiology Arthur Schwartz, who knew Nyce as a young graduate, remembers him as “an original thinker,” although not an academic stand-out from the other students.
“He worked fairly hard,” said Dr. Schwartz. “I think he had a bent towards maybe trying to do practical things.”
But soon after getting his masters, Nyce’s marriage broke up after seven years, following an unsuccessful attempt at counseling.
“I think it was mostly the religion,” said his mother. “She was Jewish and he was Catholic, and there were a lot of things he wasn’t allowed to do. He couldn’t celebrate Christmas or anything like that. And it just got to be real difficult.”
After the divorce, Jonathan Nyce, now 30 years old, moved to the West Coast to continue his medical studies. He did post-graduate work at the Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, before joining the Kenneth Norris Cancer Center.
“Well, he kept in touch for a while when he could,” said his mother. “But he was so interested in helping these poor children with the cancer.”
His parents only visited him once during his seven years in Los Angeles, but he regularly returned to Collegeville for Christmas. On one occasion he and his parents met up in Aruba for an island-hopping vacation, where he taught his father to scuba dive.
The year-round Californian climate was good for his asthma, which he no longer suffered from.
While he was on the West Coast, Jonathan became something of a laid-back California beach bum, enthusiastically taking up water sports and excelling in surfing and scuba diving. He bought an inflatable dinghy, spending much of his leisure time on the water fishing.
“He loved the ocean,” said his father. “He had a little boat and he went out a lot.”
He also began dating a California girl named Linda Koewy, who was divorced and had a young daughter. Emma Nyce says she preferred Linda to her son’s ex-wife, Sylvia, but they had problems and soon broke up.
“He wanted to have children,” said his mother, “and she didn’t want to have any more.”
It was in Los Angeles that Nyce got his real medical training, treating young leukemia patients. He began working on inventing a drug that would help fight leukemia in children who had a resistance to the normally prescribed drugs.
“What I worked on was direct resistant forms of childhood cancer,” he explained. “And this was very difficult work, because I was dealing with children that were all dying.”
Nyce wanted to discover why they were dying and why their cancer did not respond to normal drugs. Finally, after watching many young patients die, he found that in a certain percentage of these drug-resistant children, there was an enzyme that was increased a thousand times.
“I found one little girl who had an abdominal mass that was actually one-third the weight of her body,” he said. “It was a horrible case, but she was the little girl that I first found this up regulation of this enzyme in her tumor.”
Over the next few months, he invented a new drug to treat child cancer patients that would be triggered by the enzyme. In order to get funds for further research to develop his drug, he gave four separate presentations to interested venture capitalists.
“I went to them and I said, ‘I have a drug that is completely non-toxic . . . but it’s activated to a very toxic intermediate, which kills the tumor.’
“I was very excited, but they were doing calculations which indicated that the small number of patients [that could be treated] would not be a substantial return on their investment.”
In August 1987, he returned to the East Coast to be closer to his parents. After turning down a position at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, he accepted an assistant professorship at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina.
“It was closer to us,” explained his mother. “He wanted to come back East.”
At 37 years old, Jonathan Nyce seemed at last to be on track for a successful career in medicine. He was a hard worker and ambitious, with a burning desire to become one of the medical greats he had so admired, and have his portrait hanging over the staircase at Temple University.
Over the next twelve years in North Carolina, he would achieve international recognition, and find his great dream of medical immortality within his grasp.
Copyright © 2006 by John Glatt