In Surgical Oncology

March 01, 2014

Donald L. Morton, MDFrom the humblest beginnings, Donald L. Morton, MD, became the pride of his family, an internationally recognized leader in the field of surgical oncology, and a friend and mentor to many. Dr. Morton died at Saint John’s Health Center on January 10 at age 79.

Dr. Morton co-founded the John Wayne Cancer Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1981. The clinic moved to Saint John’s Health Center and became the Institute in 1991. Standing on the shoulders of their co-founder, the Institute staff grew in prominence to become one of the most reputable cancer research organizations in the world. But Dr. Morton never lost sight of his roots, always stressing the importance of education and the value of having good friends and a loving family.

He was born during the Depression in Richwood, West Virginia, in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. His father was a coal miner and built the family’s small house. Dr. Morton loved learning and attended classes at Berea College in Kentucky before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his degree in 1955. He was awarded his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1958.

He completed a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and then joined UCLA. He eventually became chief of general surgery and chief of the division of oncology.

In the 1970s, Dr. Morton turned his attention to a vexing problem in cancer surgery. Cancer often becomes lifethreatening when cells break away from the original tumor and spread to lymph nodes where they can easily travel to other organs and tissues.

Forty years ago, doctors treating patients for certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and melanoma, removed many lymph nodes in order to stop the cancer’s spread. The removal of so many nodes caused severe side effects for patients and increased the cost of surgery and length of recovery time.

But Dr. Morton suggested that removing and analyzing a single lymph node nearest the tumor was all that was needed to assess the risk of cancer metastasis. Studies proved him correct. The sentinel node biopsy became the standard procedure in oncology.

In the late ‘70s, Dr. Morton treated actor John Wayne, who was suffering from stomach cancer. As with all of his patients, Dr. Morton did his best to help Wayne, even administering an experimental treatment.

Wayne died in 1979, but Dr. Morton and the Wayne family honored the late actor’s battle with the disease by establishing the John Wayne Cancer Institute.

Over the last 32 years of his career, Dr. Morton continued to make noteworthy contributions to his field. He became interested in melanoma and created one of the first experimental vaccines to treat the disease. The approach to treating cancer by harnessing the body’s immune system – the foundation of cancer vaccines – has been adopted by research teams around the world to treat various forms of cancer.

He was also ahead of his peers in anticipating the genetics era of cancer research. Early on, Dr. Morton began preserving biopsy specimens, and today the Institute is home to one of the most important specimen repositories in the world, with the support of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary, The Ahmanson Foundation and the Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.

Moreover, Dr. Morton possessed “an uncanny skill in shaping his ideas and visions into successful federal grants,” according to his friend, Charles M. Balch, MD, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Morton ranked among the top of all clinical/social science researchers in receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health. He often had funding for two projects at a time.

During the course of his stellar career, Dr. Morton authored nearly 1,000 scientific papers. His other significant contribution to the field was his dedication to training surgical oncologists.

Through the Institute’s surgical oncology fellowship program, he trained more than 150 fellows at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. More than 80% of those fellows have become university professors, deans or department chairs. Recently the Institute became one of the first eight programs in the country to be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in complex general surgical oncology.

Dr. Morton will be remembered for his contributions to improving the lives of people who suffer from cancer. But he was foremost a beloved husband, father and friend. The father of four children, he often reminded his colleagues that family, friendships and collaborations were the keys to success in all aspects of life.