Saving the life of Nobel Laureate Physicist Dr. Richard Feynman

March 01, 2014
Dr. Richard Feynman
Dr. Richard Feynman
Dr. Donald L. Morton saved many lives over the course of his long career, and each case was as important as the next. However, one operation in particular led to a significant moment in history.

Dr. Richard Feynman, the preeminent Caltech theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965, was diagnosed with cancer in 1979. A few years later, tests showed the cancer, a sarcoma, had spread around his intestines. He opted for a high-risk surgery with Dr. Morton.

Peter Jones, MD, associate professor at the John Wayne Cancer Institute and a former fellow under Dr. Morton, was at Dr. Morton’s side the day they operated on Dr. Feynman in 1981. “The tumor was so large, many surgeons would have declined to operate,” says Dr. Jones. “And providing chemotherapy alone would have likely extended Dr. Feynman’s life by only a few months.”

“Dr. Morton agreed to perform the operation knowing it was Dr. Feynman’s only option for extended survival,” Dr. Jones recalls. “The operation was 14 hours and stressful, but successful.”

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. Honoring a request from the acting director of NASA, William Graham, Dr. Feynman agreed to serve on a presidential commission investigating the accident along with Neil Armstrong and Charles “Chuck” Yeager.

Dr. Feynman dug into the task. The pivotal moment in the investigation came on February 11, 1986, when, on national television, Dr. Feynman held up sample material of the “O-ring” rubber gasket from one of the shuttle’s solid-fuel booster rockets and dropped it into his glass of ice water. The demonstration illuminated Dr. Feynman’s theory that the gasket lost resiliency at freezing temperatures – thus allowing gases to escape and the shuttle to explode.

Dr. Feynman died on February 15, 1988, having enjoyed many years of life since that day when Dr. Morton stepped into the operating room and did his best to treat the great physicist.

“Thanks to the surgery, Dr. Feynman went on to live seven more years and solve the Challenger mystery,” says Dr. Jones. “Dr. Morton and Dr. Feynman were both pioneers and pushed the limits of knowledge in their respective fields.”