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Remembering Donald Morton, a Medical Pioneer

January 24, 2014 | Matthew Tontonoz

CRI lost a devoted member of its community this month, 79-year-old Donald Morton, M.D., who died of heart failure. Morton was a longtime member of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council, and a world expert on melanoma—a disease for which he revolutionized diagnosis and treatment.

In the 1970s, when Dr. Morton was a young surgeon, the established way of determining whether melanoma had spread to the lymph nodes was to remove a large number of surrounding nodes. The procedure was invasive, and often proved unnecessary since the nodes turned out to be clean. Dr. Morton pioneered a new approach, which involved removing only the closest lymph node and testing it for signs of cancer. If no cancer was found, then this could be taken as a sign that the cancer had not spread further. This "sentinel node" (Dr. Morton's term) was identified by injecting the tumor with dye, which would then spread via lymphatic vessels to each node in the chain. The technique proved to be a reliable method of diagnosis, and quickly became established medical practice—not only for melanoma but also for breast cancer and other cancers that spread via the lymphatic system.

In addition to being a skilled surgeon, Dr. Morton was also a forward thinking tumor immunologist. He was an early proponent of cancer vaccines and of using immune-stimulating chemicals to boost the immune system’s power to fight cancer. His strategy of injecting bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) directly into tumors represented the first successful clinical use of immunotherapy against a metastatic human cancer. Dr. Morton later had melanoma himself, but it was caught early enough to be completely removed by surgery.

Students and colleagues remember Dr. Morton as an intellectual force to be reckoned with, a kind of cowboy in the Wild West of cancer. “I’ll never forget when I walked into his office for my interview and the first thing I saw were two big guns that belonged to John Wayne nicely hung in a display case on the wall! They didn’t point at anyone, but I still promised myself to be as nice as possible,” recalls Rodica Stan, Ph.D., a former student. Dr. Morton acquired the guns after treating the famous actor for stomach cancer.

John Kirkwood, M.D., a former colleague and now a melanoma expert at the University of Pittsburgh and a CRI scientific advisor, calls Morton’s knowledge of cancer immunology and melanoma “encyclopedic." "We have lost a giant in our field," he says.

As aggressive as Dr. Morton was in the operating room, he was the exact opposite in his personal life. "Dr. Morton was gentle and respectful, a cowboy hunting down only melanomas," says Stan.

Donald Lee Morton was born on September 12, 1934, in Richwood, West Virginia. His father was a coal miner, and young Donald grew up without electricity or running water. He attended Berea College in Kentucky on scholarship before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. He received his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1958. He did postgraduate work at the National Cancer Institute and was for many years chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at UCLA before establishing the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, where he served as chief of the melanoma program. Dr. Morton served as president of the International Sentinel Node Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, and the World Federation of Surgical Oncology Societies. He was a member of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council for more than 40 years.
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