Remembering Donald L. Morton, MD, 1934 – 2014

Comments Off on Remembering Donald L. Morton, MD, 1934 – 2014

Donald L. Morton, MD, 1934 – 2014


Remembering Donald L. Morton, MD, Pioneering Cancer Surgeon and Researcher





Surgical oncology pioneer Donald L. Morton, MD, died in January of heart failure, at age 79. He played a leading role in developing and implementing sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy, which transformed the surgical management of many solid tumors, especially melanoma and breast cancer.

SLN biopsies today have been estimated to save the U.S. health system more than $3.8 billion per year in early cancer treatment, and averting numerous unnecessary surgeries.

Morton himself developed melanoma in the 1980s, but was able to recognize it early, and it was successfully treated.

For the last four decades of his life, he had been attempting to develop a therapeutic vaccine for melanoma, work that is being continued by his colleagues and other researchers.

“I think my greatest accomplishment,” he said at various times over the years, describing his childhood poverty, “was making it from rural West Virginia to the Westside of Los Angeles. I grew up during the Depression in a house that my dad built. We had no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity.”

At the time of his death, Morton was Chief of the Melanoma Program and Director of the Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center, in Santa Monica, Calif., and Professor of Surgery Emeritus at UCLA.

Outside of the medical community, he gained public attention for treating John Wayne, who died of stomach cancer in 1979 and participated in an early immunogenic cancer vaccine study that Morton led.

The author of some 700 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, he was considered one of the most prolific researchers in the United States and received many national and international awards. Over the course of his professional career he served as President of several organizations, including the Society of Surgical Oncology, the World Federation of Surgical Oncology Societies, and the International Sentinel Node Society. In 2008, he received the prestigious Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons (ACS).

“Dr. Morton’s discoveries have profoundly changed the treatment of human cancer,” the ACS noted in making the award. “When he assumed the role of professor and chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at UCLA School of Medicine in 1971, surgical oncology was not yet recognized as a specialty within general surgery. Dr. Morton’s division provided a model for other medical schools to duplicate.”

Regarding his SLN work, the ACS said, “His contribution has spared countless patients the morbidity of a complete regional lymph node dissection needlessly done in the absence of nodal metastasis. Intraoperative mapping of the sentinel node is a landmark achievement in surgical oncology.”

In 1991, Morton and John Wayne’s eldest son, Michael Wayne, founded the John Wayne Cancer Institute, where Morton became Medical Director and Surgeon-in-Chief until his death.

In the late 1970s, he changed how melanoma surgery was then approached by introducing the use of cutaneous lymphoscintigraphy to identify the regional lymphatic basin receiving drainage from a primary cutaneous melanoma. During the 1980s, he further refined lymphatic mapping to identify the pathway of sequential metastasis from a primary tumor to tumor-draining nodes within the regional nodal basin.

He defined the sentinel lymph node as the first tumor-draining node and hence the most likely initial candidate target of nodal metastasis. Extensive studies have confirmed that the pathologic status of the SLN accurately predicts the status of all nodes in the same drainage basin. SLN biopsy thus eliminates the need for more extensive staging lymphadenectomy, and improves the accuracy of nodal assessment by allowing closer scrutiny of a smaller specimen.

His novel studies of sentinel node mapping resolved the debate on the value of prophylactic lymph node dissection for melanoma, and SLN biopsy has become the standard of care for patients with early-stage malignant melanoma and breast cancer. The technique has also been successfully adapted for staging of other solid malignancies that can often spread to regional lymph nodes.

Morton received his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco in 1958. He interned at UCSF Medical Center and began a surgical residency in general surgery, and then a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. He then joined NCI as Senior Surgeon in the Surgery Branch, eventually becoming head of the Tumor Immunology Section.


Educator, Mentor

Over the course of his long career, Donald Morton trained hundreds of surgical oncology students, many of whom have gone on to make significant contributions themselves. One of them, Robert Wascher, MD, is now Chief of Surgical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s Western Regional Medical Center, in Goodyear, Arizona.

Speaking to OT about his mentor, Wascher said, “If you look at the trajectory of his life, it is quite amazing. This man, who began as a child from an impoverished coal-mining community in West Virginia, grew up to become one of the founding titans of surgical oncology.

“As a clinician, research scientist, and educator he liked to think outside the box. He was possessed of a tenacity that was, undoubtedly, a product of his hardscrabble youth. He was a tireless clinical investigator, and I believe that he still holds the record for being the most prodigiously funded researcher in the U.S., if not the world.”

Morton was a true innovator, Wascher said, but above all remained interested and committed to the work of the students that he had trained: “What stands out in my mind is not only his amazing contribution to the care of cancer patients through his development of the sentinel lymph node hypothesis, and the techniques of sentinel lymph node mapping and biopsy, but also his lifelong commitment and generosity towards his students and colleagues.”

For all of the professional awards and recognition that Morton received in his life, Wascher said that he believes his greatest contribution was in educating and mentoring students.

“I am certain that Dr. Morton was most proud of the many young surgeons that he personally trained who went on to become successful and renowned surgical oncologists, research scientists, and department chairs in their own right. He was very paternalistic towards all of us. Although he could be very demanding of his fellows, he was always committed and caring towards us.

“Following my graduation, in 2003, from the surgical oncology fellowship that he founded, and that he sustained until literally a few days before his passing, he continued to regularly check in with me regarding my professional progress, as well as my family and me. For those of us who were fortunate enough to have had Dr. Morton as our mentor and teacher, his passing leaves an enormous void in our hearts and in our lives.”


Oncology Times


Copyright 2014

Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

All rights reserved


Join Dr. Wascher on Facebook


Additional Links for Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS

New Facebook Page for Doc Wascher Music

New Instrumental Rock by Dr. Wascher (Facebook)

Facebook Page for A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race

CNN Story on CTCA’s Organic Farm in the Phoenix Area

Dr. Wascher Discusses Signs & Symptoms of Skin Cancer

Profile of Dr. Wascher by Oncology Times

Bio of Dr. Wascher at Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Dr. Wascher Discusses Predictions of Decreased Cancer Risk on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Environmental Risk Factors for Breast Cancer on Sharecare

Dr. Wascher Answers Questions About Cancer on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Cancer Prevention Strategies on LIVESTRONG

Dr. Wascher Discusses Cancer Prevention on Newsmax

Dr. Wascher Answers Questions About Cancer Risk & Cancer Prevention on The Doctors Radio Show

Dr. Wascher Discusses Lymphedema After Breast Surgery on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Hormone Replacement Therapy & Breast Cancer Risk on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Chronic Pain After Mastectomy for Breast Cancer on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy for Cancer on

Dr. Wascher Discusses the Role of Exercise in Cancer Prevention on Open Salon

Dr. Wascher Discusses Aspirin as a Potential Preventive Agent for Pancreatic Cancer on eHealth Forum

Dr. Wascher Discusses Obesity & Cancer Risk on eHealth Forum

Dr. Wascher Discusses the Role of Radiation Therapy in the Treatment of Breast Cancer on Sharecare

Dr. Wascher Discusses the Treatment of Stomach Cancer on Sharecare

Dr. Wascher Discusses the Management of Metastatic Cancer of the Liver on Sharecare

Dr. Wascher Discusses Obesity & Cancer Risk on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Hormone Replacement Therapy & Breast Cancer Risk on

Dr. Wascher Discusses Thyroid Cancer on


Links to Other Breaking Health News

Sugary Drinks Raise Cancer Risk in Women

Eye Exams May Someday Be Able to Detect Early Alzheimer’s Disease

Even Mild Rise in Blood Sugar May Impair Memory

New Drug May Lead to Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease

Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Not Protect Brain Health

Parasite in Cat Feces May Affect Brain Function

Lung Diseases Cause 1 in 10 Deaths

Music May Heal The Heart

Poor Oral Hygiene Increases Cancer Risk

Autism May Affect Female Brains Differently than Male Brains

Child Obesity Rates Fall for the First Time

New Teeth Grown from Urine

HPV Virus Newly Linked to One-Third of All Oral Cancer Cases

FDA Approves New Brain Scan to Assess for ADHD in Kids

Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Among Middle-Aged Women

Naked Mole Rat May Provide Important Cancer Prevention Clue

The Effects of Poverty on the Brain

Half of Us Will Develop Cancer in Our Lifetimes

Protein Critical for Long-Term Memory Identified

HPV Virus and Cancer Risk

Probiotics May Decrease Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea caused by C. difficile

3-D Printer Helps to Save Baby’s Life

Experimental Drug May Reduce Heart Damage after Heart Attack

Vitamin D May Improve Asthma Symptoms

Doctor Provides Patients with Own Feces for Fecal Transplants

Rising Arsenic Levels in Chicken

Dramatic Increase in Suicide Rate Among Middle Aged Americans Over the Past Decade

Cutting Umbilical Cord Too Soon May Cause Anemia in Newborns

Spiny New Bandage May Speed Healing of Skin Wounds

Study Confirms that Men Really Do Have Trouble Reading the Thoughts of Women

Deadly new Bird Flu Strain Cases Continue to Rise

Abdominal Fat Increases Kidney Disease Risk

Increasing Dietary Potassium & Decreasing Salt Intake Reduces Stroke Risk

A New Explanation for the Link Between Red Meat & Cardiovascular Disease

Deadly New Bird Flu Identified in China

Infection Risk: Keeping an Eye on Your Dentist

Couple Loses 500 Pounds in Two Years

Coffee May Reduce Crash Risk for Long-Distance Drivers

Tiny Implant Tells Your Smart Phone When You Are Having A Heart Attack

Transplanted Kidney Causes Death Due to Rabies

Eating While Distracted Increases Calorie Intake

Resistant Bacteria are on the Rise

High Levels of Stress Linked to an Increase in Heart Disease Risk

Small Snacks Cut Hunger as Well as Big Snacks

Poor Sleep May Increase the Risk of Heart Failure

Ancient Mummies Found to Have Heart Disease by CT Scan

Physically Fit Kids Do Better on Math & Reading Tests

How Melanoma Skin Cancer Evades the Immune System

Possible Link Between BPA and Asthma

Baby Boomers Appear Less Healthy Than Their Parents

The Biology of Love in the Brain

Millennials May be the Most Stressed-Out Generation

Even Modest Alcohol Intake Raises Cancer Risk

Why Do Boys Receive Lower Grades than Girls?

Negative Emotions and Feelings Can Damage Your Health

Canker Sore Drug Cures Obesity (At Least in Mice…)

How Technology is Changing the Practice of Medicine

New Salt Intake Guidelines for Children

High Levels of Distress in Childhood May Increase Risk of Heart Disease in Adulthood

Quitting Tobacco by Age 40 Restores a Normal Lifespan in Smokers

Cancer Death Rates Continue to Fall

Self-Help Books Improve Depression

Marines Try Mindfulness and Meditation to Reduce PTSD

Dying Nurse Volunteers Herself to Teach Nursing Students about the Dying

Regular Walks Cut Stroke Risk

Falling Asleep While Driving More Common than Previously Thought

Celebrity Health Fads Debunked

Obesity Among Young Children May Be Declining

Fresh Fruits & Vegetables May Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

Satisfaction with Life May Actually Increase with Age

Brain Changes in the Elderly May Increase Susceptibility to Being Scammed


Dr. Wascher’s Home Page

According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty between September 2001 and December 2011 is more than 12 percent.  A new website, Veterans in Healthcare, seeks to connect veterans with potential employers.  If you are a veteran who works in the healthcare field, or if you are an employer who is looking for physicians, advanced practice professionals, nurses, corpsmen/medics, or other healthcare professionals, then please take a look at Veterans in Healthcare. As a retired veteran of the U.S. Army, I would also like to personally urge you to hire a veteran whenever possible.

Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


I and the staff of Weekly Health Update would again like to take this opportunity to thank the more than 100,000 health-conscious people from around the world who visit this premier global health information website every month.  Over the past 12 months, more than 3 million pages of high-quality medical research findings were served to the worldwide audience of health-conscious readers.  As always, we enjoy receiving your stimulating feedback and questions, and I will continue to try and personally answer as many of your inquiries as I possibly can.


Bookmark and Share

Post to Twitter

Better Tag Cloud