Saint John's Health Center Oncologist Dies at 79

Santa Monica Doctor Donald. L. Morton, formerly of Pacific Palisades passed away Jan. 10 of heart failure.

Dr. Donald L. Morton. Credit: St. John's Health Center, Santa Monica.
Dr. Donald L. Morton. Credit: St. John's Health Center, Santa Monica.

The following obituary was provided by St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. 

Donald L. Morton, MD, formerly of Pacific Palisades, CA, passed away from heart failure on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

To his family, he was a devoted husband, loving father and caring grandfather. To his colleagues, he was considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities in the research and treatment of the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma. To his students, he was an esteemed educator and role model. And to his patients, he was not only their doctor, but also a friend. Dr. Morton, Chief of the Melanoma Program and Co-Director of the Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program at John Wayne Cancer Institute (JWCI) in Santa Monica, CA, was a cancer crusader whose passion was fueled by the patients he treated every day.

“Don Morton was one of the most famous cancer surgeons in the world and was 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. “His contributions have been monumental, literally saving countless lives.”

It was a remarkable journey for the world-renowned surgeon, who was Chief of General Surgery and 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. Born September 12, 1934 in Richwood, West Virginia and raised in a small West Virginia coal-mining town, Dr. Morton grew up amid rural poverty where his mother always stressed the importance of education. He began his formal education at Berea College, a small college in Kentucky geared toward disadvantaged youth in Appalachia.

Dr. Morton once said, “For me, I think the greatest accomplishment 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.”

After college at UC Berkeley, Dr. Morton 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 believed that rallying the immune system through the use of therapeutic vaccines could be a way to combat cancer.

These keen powers of observation also led Dr. Morton to develop 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. Because of Dr. Morton’s sentinel node discovery, 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 first. The sentinel node concept, used in melanoma, breast and other cancers, saves the U.S. healthcare system over $3.8 billion a year and countless unnecessary operations and suffering for patients.

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.

Dr. Morton's scientific contributions towards the immunology of cancer and surgical oncology yielded more than 1,000 authored publications in peer-reviewed journals and garnered him a long series of prestigious awards and honors, notable among which are his recognition by the Cancer Research Institute of New York as one of the pioneers in tumor immunology, his listing in Current Contents as one of the most quoted contemporary scientists, and his receipt of MD Anderson's Jeffrey A. Gottlieb Memorial Award for cancer therapeutic research.

He is a recent past president of both the Society of Surgical Oncology and the World Federation of Surgical Oncology Societies. In addition, Dr. Morton has served on numerous review committees for the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. He also trained more than 135 fellows, of which 80 percent are in leadership roles in academic institutions or major cancer centers.  He considered the fellows he trained to be one of his greatest legacies.


Highlights of Dr. Morton’s lengthy list of career achievements include:


2010    Dr. Morton was named Alumnus of the Year, University of San Francisco School of Medicine; an honor bestowed on fewer than 55 alumni since the medical school’s inception in 1893. 

2009    The Society of Surgical Oncology 62nd Annual Cancer Symposium honored Dr. Morton with “Scientific Advances in Surgical Oncology Management, A Tribute to Donald L. Morton, MD.”

2008    Dr. Morton received the Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons.

2007    Dr. Morton was honored as James Ewing Lecturer at the Society of Surgical Oncology.

2005    Dr. Morton ranked among the highest national thought leaders in Melanoma. This was based on BioMedical Insight’s oncology Thought Leader Reports used to rank national and local physician thought leaders in the diseases of most interest to healthcare product manufacturers.

2002    Dr. Morton received funding from the National Cancer Institute to establish a repository of specimens available to cancer researchers nationwide. JWCI’s Specimen Repository includes over 1 million specimens.

2002    Dr. Morton received additional funding from the National Cancer Institute to further investigate the clinical efficacy of Canvaxin vaccine and determine methods for increasing the optimal immune response to the vaccine.

2001    According to the journal, Science, Dr. Morton’s peer-reviewed grant awards for immunotherapy and surgery trials put him at the top of a list of clinical/social science researchers who have received the most funding from the National Institutes of Health.

2000    On behalf of JWCI, Dr. Morton co-chaired an international conference on intraoperative lymphatic mapping of the sentinel node. Scientists from around the world presented basic and clinical research on the sentinel node concept as applied to cancers affecting almost every organ system. It is estimated that 2-3 million new cancer patients each year will receive therapy that has been impacted by identification and pathologic analysis of the sentinel lymph node.

1999    Dr. Morton introduced a management paradigm that combined cytoreductive surgery with postoperative active immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma. In this paradigm, mechanical reduction of tumor burden allows a patient’s immune system to recover and respond optimally to an active immunostimulant such as Canvaxin vaccine.

1997    Dr. Morton was awarded funding from the National Cancer Institute for two international phase III trials of Canvaxin vaccine as adjuvant immunotherapy after complete surgical resection of regional or distant metastatic melanoma.

1995    Dr. Morton received MD Anderson’s prestigious Jeffrey Gottleib Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cancer Therapeutic Research.

1994    Dr. Morton was awarded funding from the National Cancer Institute for an international phase III trial of intraoperative lymphatic mapping to identify subclinical regional metastasis in patients with clinically localized cutaneous melanoma.

Aside from his numerous awards and accolades, Dr. Morton found his patients and their plights as an ongoing source of inspiration and the reason he remained impassioned in finding a cure for cancer.

“Cancer patients are the nicest patients in the world. I truly believe there is a genetic link between kindness and those who are diagnosed with cancer,” said Dr. Morton. “After all of these years, I still cannot help but get emotionally involved with my patients and their situations. It is truly rewarding when a patient with a fatal diagnosis is still alive after five years but it is crushing when I lose a patient because in essence I am losing a friend.”

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."

According to his wife Lorraine Morton, “his most passionate interests began and ended with his patients, research and family. He had a deep love of the ocean. Watching the ocean freed his mind and allowed him to think more creatively. He loved our former home in Malibu where the sound of the waves rippling on the shore gave him peace.”

Dr. Morton is survived by his wife Lorraine who he married on June 4, 1989 and his daughters Danielle Morton, Christin Kazmierczak, Laura Morton Rowe, Diana Morton McAlpine, and son Donald L. Morton Jr. He is also survived by his eight wonderful grandchildren: Katherine, Elizabeth, Eric, Lauren, Michael, Donald III, Gregory, and Alex as well as his brother Patrick Morton and sister Carolyn Morton Karr.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made on behalf of Donald L. Morton, MD to the Donald L. Morton, MD Family Charitable Fund (D1180) at the California Community Foundation, 221 South Figueroa Street, Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90012; or the James Ewing Foundation of the Society of Surgical Oncology Donald L. Morton Memorial Fund at the Society of Surgical Oncology, 9525 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, Suite 870, Rosemont, ILL, 60018.

A private burial mass will be held at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, with a Memorial Service held on Feb. 8, 2014 at 11 a.m. at Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church, located at 1031 Bienveneda Avenue in Pacific Palisades, CA. It will be followed by a light luncheon at Casa Del Mar Hotel, 1910 Ocean Way, in Santa Monica, CA, "Celebrating the Life" of our beloved Don Morton.

Martin Miller January 18, 2014 at 06:00 PM
A big loss. His life and achievements are movie material. From Appalachia to breakthrough cancer researcher, diagnostician, and surgical oncologist. He probably knew Dr. Milton Krisiloff, a urologist who has correlated bodily inflammation with the onset of cancer. His Krisiloff Diet is anti-inflammatory. He was principally involved in inflammation studies, sponsored by the defense department, at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. RIP Dr. Morton.


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