Donald L. Morton, MD

March 01, 2013

A living legend, Dr. Morton shaped the field of surgical oncology.


Donald L. Morton, MDIn the field of oncology, Donald L. Morton, MD, is a giant. Over the past half-century, Dr. Morton, chief of the melanoma program and co-director of the surgical oncology fellowship program at John Wayne Cancer Institute, has led revolutionary changes in a field that was too often stumped by the complexity and tenacity of cancer.

“Don Morton is one of the most famous cancer surgeons in the world today and has been instrumental in changing the face of cancer and cancer research,” says Anton J. Bilchik, MD, PhD, chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at JWCI.

In his long career, Dr. Morton has made significant contributions in two distinct fields: surgical oncology research and surgical fellowship training. On the research side, he devised a procedure that has become the standard of care for melanoma and breast cancer. He was also a pioneer in the development of cancer vaccines. On the education side, he has worked hard to establish the next generation of surgical oncologists, training more than 135 fellows. “I’m very proud that 80% of them are university professors,” Dr. Morton says. “Ten percent of them are deans or department chairs, and 45% are chiefs of their respective divisions of surgical oncology. They are widely distributed throughout the country and will continue to make contributions to cancer research long after I’m gone.”

It’s been a remarkable journey for the world-renowned surgeon, who was chief of the division of surgical oncology at UCLA before he established the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica in 1991. Donald Morton grew up amid rural poverty in a small West Virginia coal-mining town and attended Berea College, a small college in Kentucky geared toward disadvantaged youth in Appalachia. His mother stressed the importance of education.

“For me, I think the greatest accomplishment was making it from rural West Virginia to the Westside of Los Angeles,” he says. “I grew up during the Depression in a house that my dad built. We had no running water, no indoor plumbing and no electricity.” As a youngster, Dr. Morton tended pigs, cows and chickens in the morning before school and again in the evening. “Only then could I do my homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.”

Donald L. Morton, MD

After college at UC Berkeley he received his medical training at UC San Francisco Medical School. When he arrived at the National Cancer Institute in 1960, he began what became a lifelong study of melanoma. The surgical oncologist was intrigued by reports of spontaneous recoveries from cancer, which suggested the body was mounting an immune response to fight off the malignancy. He felt that rallying the immune system through the use of therapeutic vaccines could be a way of combating cancer.

These keen powers of observation also led Dr. Morton to devise the sentinel node biopsy technique. In the past, surgeons would remove all lymph nodes surrounding a cancerous tumor to see if a tumor has spread. Doctors now inject a radioactive dye near the tumor, which illuminates the drainage pathway of the tumor and tracks the primary or sentinel drainage node. If the tumor is going to spread, according to numerous clinical trials, it would have to go through that node.

“The sentinel node concept saves the U.S. health care system about $3.8 billion a year and countless unnecessary operations and suffering from lymphedema for patients,” he notes.

Dr. Morton was able to gain acceptance of his innovative work by creating a vast clinical trial network that involved institutions throughout the world. The way he organized this international consortium became a model for similar research efforts.

In a 2011 editorial in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, Charles M. Balch, MD, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, wrote of his colleague: "Donald Morton is truly a legend in surgical oncology, an icon as a surgical investigator, a pioneer in melanoma, a valued mentor, an authentic role model and a cherished friend to many of us around the world."