Founding Faculty: Jack M. Layton, MD, Recalls his 'Once-in-a-Lifetime' Opportunity

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

By Jane Erikson

Jack Layton, MD, professor of pathology at the University of Iowa, was checking a resident’s surgical pathology report when his assistant interrupted.

“Dr. Layton, you have a long distance call from a Dr. DuVal in Arizona,” she told him.

“I don’t know him. I wonder what he wants,” Layton replied.

“Well, he really wants to talk to you.”

Merlin K. “Monte” DuVal, MD, was starting a medical school at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Already on board were Philip  Krutzsch, MD, as basic science planner, and Oscar Thorup, MD, as clinical science planner. They would later head the departments  of anatomy and internal medicine, respectively. What DuVal wanted was someone to head the Department of Pathology. That person would be the first department head of the college, DuVal explained, since pathology was the bridge between basic science and clinical science. DuVal knew Layton was widely respected in his field. Would he be interested?

“Well, I might be,” Layton replied.

It was the spring of 1966. Six weeks and two trips to Tucson later, DuVal called to offer Layton the job. That time, Layton’s answer was yes.

Layton was perfectly happy in Iowa City. But DuVal convinced Layton that the focus of this new medical school would be entirely on the students, and that was what Layton wanted to hear. By the early 1960s, medical schools across the country were beginning to shift much of their focus to research. Getting large federal grants was becoming as important as training future physicians.

“I was becoming concerned, as were others, that teaching was kind of going to the back burner,” Layton says. “And there was a great lack of medical practitioners at the time, and we were getting behind in our ability to take care of the country’s increasing population.”

And although Layton had spent his life in Iowa, he was no stranger to Arizona. His father, then a retired pharmacist, lived in Scottsdale, so he had visited Arizona over the years.

Layton stayed at Iowa, finishing up his teaching, until mid-April 1967. He started with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – then just two buildings near Speedway and Campbell Avenue – on May 1.

The first class of 32 students started that fall.

“Oh yes, it was a great opportunity,” Layton says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. At other medical schools, when you’re a freshman, you can ask the older students questions like ‘Is that something you really have to know anything about,’ or ‘What are the exams like?’ But now the founding faculty had to provide the answers.

“The really nice thing was that you knew all the students, and they knew you, and you felt very comfortable talking with them. We would arrange for faculty and students to get together on Saturdays and play golf, or go swimming at the pool at the Lodge on the Desert, or have a party at a student’s or a faculty member’s house.”

Anna Graham, MD, a member of the Class of 1974 who rose to national prominence in pathology, recalls the impact Layton had on her career.

“Jack started changing my life when I was a medical student,” Graham says. “One of my first impressions of him that was so powerful was when, on the first day of class, he was there to welcome us and tell us what pathology was all about.

“I remember thinking, this is a man who must be terribly busy. It impressed me a great deal that he would take that time with us.

“He also was a father figure,” Graham says. “You knew to go to him if you had a question or you were troubled by something. He would take the time to listen and give you good advice

“Jack was also completely gender-blind in terms of encouraging people in their careers,” Graham says. “We had more female faculty in our department than most other clinical departments.

“When I was a resident, we lacked a specialist in bone pathology, and he offered me that opportunity to work with orthopaedic surgeons, and that was very exciting for me.”  Layton also encouraged her to take part in professional organizations. She did, and eventually became president of the American Society of Clinical Pathology.

In 1971, President Nixon chose DuVal as assistant secretary of health in what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Layton served as acting dean of the College of Medicine and director of the Arizona Medical Center from 1971 until 1973, then continued with the department of pathology. DuVal returned as dean for a year, then was succeeded by Neal Vanselow, MD.

Asked why he went into medicine, Layton’s answer sounds like a narrative for a Norman Rockwell painting.

By the time he was 8 or 10, he would hang out after school in his father’s pharmacy on the first floor of a building, with doctors’ offices on the second floor. “I figured I’d be a pharmacist. But then one of the doctors upstairs told me I should go into medicine, I guess because I was interested in pharmaceuticals and had a good grade-point average.”

In any case, his choice proved successful. Layton is nationally and internationally recognized for his contributions to pathology, particularly with regard to infectious disease and neoplasia, including tumors of the eye.

He was president of several organizations: the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, the International Academy of Pathology, the American Board of Pathology, and the American Registry of Pathology. He also was chairman of the Board of Regents of the national Academy of Medicine, and served on advisory boards to the medical director of the Veterans Administration, and to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He was a delegate to the American Medical Association and the American Board of Medical Specialties.

His work with these organizations promoted awareness of the fledgling UA College of Medicine.

The first class of College of Medicine graduates honored Layton as “The Father of the Class of ’71.” Five years later, they honored him again as the teacher they most appreciated in medical school, and presented he and his wife, Bette, with a trip to Tahiti.

Layton remained head of pathology until 1988. Looking back on his pioneering career, Layton says his most rewarding experiences were those associated with being a founding faculty member at the UA College of Medicine.