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Dr. Larry Norton & the Case of the Recurring Mass

Dr. Larry Norton & the Case of the Recurring Mass

ABSTRACT: One case led him to oncology; another, to his famous hypothesis.

There is a large musical instrument, a vibraphone, occupying a corner of Dr. Larry Norton’s office, but it doesn’t seem out of place. He is a serious musician, so serious in fact that in his youth he thought hard about a career in music.


Dr. Larry Norton
  

Larry Norton, MD, grew up in suburban Long Island, at the edge of New York City; a subway ride took him downtown to Greenwich Village. It was the 1960s, and "The Village" was the epicenter of New York's counterculture. McDougal and Bleecker streets were the crossroads he frequented. He remembers a young Bob Dylan performing at Cafe Wha?, so fresh on the scene he was still learning his trademark harmonica riffs.

 

Larry Norton, MD, grew up in suburban Long Island, at the edge of New York City; a subway ride took him downtown to Greenwich Village. It was the 1960s, and “The Village” was the epicenter of New York’s counterculture. McDougal and Bleecker streets were the crossroads he frequented. He remembers a young Bob Dylan performing at Cafe Wha?, so fresh on the scene he was still learning his trademark harmonica riffs.

“It was an incredibly interesting time. All about breaking boundaries, experimenting with new ideas,” Dr. Norton told ONI during a recent visit to his office at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he is deputy physician-in-chief and director of Breast Cancer Programs.

Dr. Norton lifted a soft mallet and struck one of the vibraphone’s aluminum bars, delivering a short note. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life when I left college,” he said. He toyed with the idea of staying in New York City, but went instead to the University of Rochester to study music.

In those days, he said, Rochester was a hotbed of musical inventiveness. “But after about a year there, I began to question whether I should pursue a career in music. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, but I was always drawn to science.”

A Word of Inspiration

One afternoon, he met a friend, Ronald Blum, MD, on the steps of the University of Rochester Rush Rhees library. (Dr. Blum later became a prominent oncologist, and is currently at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York.)

“I told Ron that I was questioning my decision to become a professional musician,” Dr. Norton said.

The year before, Blum said he had spent “the best summer of his life” at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute (now Roswell Park Cancer Institute) working with an inspirational cancer researcher.

“The word ‘inspirational’ caught me immediately,” Dr. Norton said. He hopped a bus to Roswell Park in Buffalo. “I interviewed with the same researcher, William Regelson, MD, who was a giant in the early days of oncology. He asked tough insightful questions, but I heard in his voice what a lot of the great musicians of that era had preached: Let’s not get stuck in the past; be radical and inventive.”

That summer with Regelson was eye-opening, whetting Larry Norton’s appetite for science; the following summer was career molding. Dr. Regelson had moved to the Medical College of Virginia. Larry Norton followed his mentor there the next summer, working as a laboratory assistant and doing rounds. While he was there, a patient was admitted with a huge gynecologic neoplasm that had actually eroded out into the skin.

“It was a horrible-looking cancer. She was treated with methotrexate, not a great drug by today’s standard. But this tumor just melted away, like someone had waved a magic wand,” he said, adding that it was largely this case, bordering on miraculous, that sparked his interest in oncology.

“The trajectory of my medical history has been greatly influenced by single cases,” said Dr. Norton, who, despite being known for innovative scientific research, considers himself a clinician at heart.

After receiving his MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, he trained in internal medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

He then served as a clinical associate and investigator at the NCI. That was when another case led to a theory largely inspired by Benjamin Gompertz, a self-educated mathematician known for Gompertz’s law of mortality, a mathematical model he published in 1825. The model holds that growth rates of populations are exponential at early stages of development and slower at later stages.

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