MARTIN L. DALTON, JR., M.D.
The trope is overused, but in the case of Martin L. Dalton, Jr. M.D., it is apt: Look in a dictionary under "gentleman," and his image will be there. David Feliciano once commented on Daltonís height, white hair, and distinguished bearing. "He just looks like a chair of surgery," he said. He had a notable surgical career, but it was his personal character and integrity that made him a favorite son claimed by academic institutions in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. His deep respect for his mentors and a genuine love for residents fed his twin loves of surgical history and resident education. He was thus a unique figure in the field, able to identify the timeless traditions of surgery and one who adapted its educational institutions to the requirements and challenges of the future.
A native of Columbus, GA, he attended Auburn University and took his baccalaureate in 1953. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Alabama (now the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine) in 1957, where Champ Lyons, as Chair of Surgery, influenced young Martin's decision to enter the field. He trained in surgery at the University of Mississippi under James Hardy, who became his mentor for the rest of his life. At the completion of his training it was a simple step to remain there under Hardy and train in thoracic surgery. Despite his time at the University of Alabama and in Mississippi and his Georgia upbringing, Martinís Southeast Conference football loyalty remained steadfast to Auburn, his alma mater.
In 1963, when Dalton was Chief Thoracic Resident in Jackson, MS, Hardy assigned him the task of removal of the donor organ for the first lung transplant, a landmark operation for which Hardy had been researching in animal experiments over the previous six years. Without criteria for brain death and long before protocols existed for donor consent, the transplant occurred by chance, an emergency room fatal heart attack coinciding with a recipient with irreversible post obstructive pneumonia from lung cancer. Dalton and his team kept the donor alive with internal cardiac massage as they moved the patient from the ER to the OR to remove the left lung.
Once the organ had been passed to Hardy to be implanted in the recipient, Dalton was called to see a patient who had been shot in the chest. When Dalton arrived in the Emergency Room he saw immediately that the wound was fatal, and the man was dead. Only later did he discover that the victim was civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
After finishing his training Dalton served as chief of the thoracic surgery section at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He then entered private practice in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery in Lubbock, TX, where he was involved in the newly organized medical school and residency in surgery at the Texas Tech University School of Medicine.
Hardy coaxed him back to Mississippi and he rejoined his department at the University in 1983. Despite his involvement in the nascent medical school and residency in Lubbock, when he reentered the academic mainstream Dalton found that the environment had changed in the two decades since he finished his training in surgery, most notably the increased numbers of women and African Americans in the student body and residency program. Hardy had implemented the change on his own and without hesitation Dalton embraced the new reality. Robert Rhodes succeeded Hardy as professor and chair upon the latter's retirement in 1988, a position that Dalton secretly coveted. He kept his disappointment to himself with his characteristic gentlemanly manner. He accepted instead the position of chief of surgery at the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center adjacent to the University Hospital.
So when he happened to see an advertisement in the Archives of Surgery for a faculty position at the Mercer University School of Medicine under Will Sealy, he decided to explore the opportunity. Among the duties was to be Sealy's second-in-command as chair and residency program director. In part out of respect for Sealy's achievements in the surgical treatment of pre-excitation pathways to control arrhythmia when he was at Duke University, Dalton accepted the position.
When he arrived, he found that Sealy was closer to retirement than he had let on. Moreover, the training program was under probation and at risk of losing its accreditation by the Residency Review Committee in Surgery. The decisive site visit was in fact imminent. Rather than arriving with the academic year in July, Dalton moved to Macon in October 1990 as interim program director to guide the program through the rigorous stages of reestablishing full accreditation without citations in 1992. During the process, in July 1991, just eight months after his arrival, Dalton was named the Milford Hatcher professor and chair of surgery at Mercer.
It turned out to be a dream job for him, as it reconnected him to direct resident and medical student education in a smaller institution where he could make an impact. Under his leadership the affiliated hospital, the Medical Center of Central Georgia, received accreditation as a Level I Trauma Center under the aegis of the Committee on Trauma of the American College of Surgeons. One of his favorite trainees, Dennis Ashley, returned to be chief of the trauma and surgical critical care service at MCCG after training at Grady Hospital in Atlanta under Feliciano. (Ashley currently holds the Hatcher professorship and is chair at Mercer.)
He would have been perfectly content to remain in the role as professor and chair for the remainder of his career. However, university president R. Kirby Godsey prevailed on Dalton to assume the position of dean of the medical school in 2006 during a difficult change in leadership. Daltonís loyalty to his new institution demanded that he accept the new assignment, which he no doubt saw as a step down from his beloved position as chair and residency program director. At first, he tried to hold onto the position for which he had worked so hard and for a department that had come so far. But two fulltime jobs were obviously untenable, so again with characteristic graciousness he worked to recruit another chair. When the new chair came, Dalton supported him without reservation. Under his tenure as dean Mercer reestablished its accreditation with the Liaison Committee for Medical Education and opened a four-year medical school in Savannah.
He was an unabashed fan of history. He sought stories and personalities and delighted in the serendipity of making known the backstory of a significant event that had great importance to the field. As expected, he wrote on his mentors Champ Lyons and James Hardy, and his respected colleague Will Sealy. He and his colleague Bruce Innes instituted an annual history of medicine symposium at Mercer, which featured student, resident, and faculty speakers on a potpourri of topics, with a guest keynote speaker. The event drew participants from throughout the state and attendees would come early to claim choice seats in the auditorium. Others, including the present writer, discovered an abiding enthusiasm for history through him.
A proud member of the Southern Surgical Association, Dalton was past vice president of the organization and gave the inaugural Joseph M. Donald History of Medicine Lecture in 2002. He was also a member of the American Surgical Association, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the Society for Vascular Surgery, and the Southeastern Surgical Congress. He served as Governor of the American College of Surgeons, president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American College of Surgeons, and second vice-president of the Southeastern.
Dalton was a devout Christian and his faith guided his life, including how he inspired his students and residents, many of whom were inspired by his example. Dalton is survived by his wife Alice, daughters Lucy and Virginia, and grandson William Dalton Rankin.
DON K. NAKAYAMA, M.D., M.B.A.