Sept. 12, 1934 – Jan. 10, 2014
Dr. Donald L. Morton, a son of an Appalachian coal miner who gained renown as a surgeon for helping to develop a widely used technique for detecting and treating certain kinds of cancer, died Jan. 10 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 79.
The cause was heart failure, his family said.
Even as Morton did groundbreaking work, he was also known as one of the last physicians to treat the actor John Wayne in 1979, when Wayne was in an advanced stage of stomach cancer. He later had a founding role in what is now the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica.
Morton, who grew up without electricity or running water in West Virginia, made his way to the forefront of global cancer research and treatment with a focus on melanoma, a type of skin cancer. He would have it himself in the late 1980s and detected it early enough to have it surgically removed. He helped save countless others from it, too.
“Dr. Morton’s discoveries have profoundly changed the treatment of human cancer,” the American College of Surgeons said in 2008 when it gave him an award for innovation in surgical technique.
In the late 1970s, while working as chief of surgical oncology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Morton helped develop a technique called a sentinel lymph node biopsy.
In the past, doctors trying to determine whether cancer had spread to lymph nodes had to remove large numbers of nodes.
It was a serious operation with lasting side effects, yet 80 percent of the time it proved unnecessary because no tumor was found. Morton believed many of the operations could be avoided.
“Dr. Morton’s idea was that a tumor would migrate first to one lymph node, the way water running down a mountain flows into one lake before flowing downstream to others,” Andrew Pollack wrote in a 2003 profile of Morton in the New York Times. “By injecting dye into a patient’s tumor, he hypothesized, doctors could trace the spread pattern and find that node, which could then be removed. Only if that node had cancer would others be excised.”
The technique proved successful, and it was adapted for breast cancer cases and other cancers.
Morton helped develop the technique while also pursuing his long-held dream of creating a vaccine for melanoma.
Beginning in the 1960s, he began experimenting with a vaccine that was intended not to prevent cancer but to harness the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells once they have developed. In the following decades, he became one of the top grant recipients from the National Institutes of Health, and he helped set up a private company, CancerVax, which raised money to conduct trials of the proposed vaccine, called Canvaxin.
– New York Times