October 10, 2013For Colin Orton Ph.D. it all started with a love of math. But when a school counselor in his native England told him that career options for math majors were limited, he taught himself physics.
Yes, he taught himself physics, which led to a degree in physics from London University as well as a master’s degree and a doctorate in radiation physics.
And now, after a career that spanned five decades, he has been honored by his peers as one of 50 medical physicists in the world who have made the most significant impact on their field.
“It was a great honor,” he said of the recognition from the International Organization of Medical Physics. “The awards were meant to recognize the 50th anniversary of the organization,” Orton explained, noting that its membership represents 80 countries and 20,000 members.
And one well deserved, according to his colleagues, who also named Orton a Fellow of the IOMP, one of only 18 members who were so honored.
Orton, 75, retired in 2003 from Wayne State University, where he served as chief physicist and professor in radiation oncology. Since that time, he has traveled extensively throughout the world establishing certification programs for medical physicists, including an international certification program that would be recognized by hospitals and medical schools in smaller, less-developed countries.
He began his teaching career while in graduate school at London University. He taught physics to pre-med students and radiation oncologists at the university’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College.
In 1966, he moved to the United States to become chief physicist at the New York University Medical Center. In 1975 he was named chief physicist and associate professor of radiation medicine at Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University. In 1981, he was named chief physicist and professor at the radiation oncology center at Wayne State.
Orton said he was approached by the chief of radiation oncology at NYU while attending a conference in London.
“Medical physics was a very new field at that time,” Orton said, “and the United States simply wasn’t producing enough physicists to meet the demand.”
Medical physicists design, monitor and maintain the equipment used in radiation therapy, and Orton notes how fast the field has evolved with major advancements in the field in a very short time.
“There have been dramatic reductions in side effects of radiation therapies,” he said. “It used to be called the ‘burning treatment’ but advances in the equipment have eliminated many of those side effects. The changes in the field are amazing.”
Orton credits his Wayne State colleague, the late William Powers M.D., who was chief of radiation oncology, with many of those advances in treatment.
“He led Detroit into the modern age very quickly,” Orton said.
During his tenure at Wayne State, Orton was elected president of the American Academy of Physicists in Medicine, served as chairman of the American College of Medical Physics and president of the American Brachytherapy Society. He also served as editor of Medical Physics World, published more than 200 papers, 50 book chapters and 19 books.
A rewarding professional life served as a great complement to a rich personal life. Orton met his wife, Barbara, in England while playing badminton, a game they have both enjoyed for years. Together they raised three children and are now enjoying their five grandchildren.
Barbara Orton taught high school chemistry and while they lived in New York, she earned a master’s degree in organic chemistry at NYU. In 1984, she became board certified in medical physics, and worked for several years in radiation oncology at Oakwood Hospital.
The Ortons moved to Grosse Pointe when he took the position at Wayne State, and have lived in the Park since 1998. Their three children, Nigel, Susannne and Philip, all graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School. Nigel has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and is chief medical physicist with Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane, Wash., Susanne lives in Portland, Ore., where she had been a business analyst for Boeing before staying home with her children, and Philip has a Ph.D. in ocean physics from Columbia University, lives in Manhattan, and is a senior research scientist at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J.
The Ortons still travel extensively, returning to England and to Wales, where Barbara’s mother lives. Both Ortons are active in an area badminton league and also enjoy golf. A lake front house in Grosse Pointe Park became the perfect setting for their newest hobby, boating.
And while his profession has taken him all over the world, both Ortons agree that their favorite place to be is on their porch overlooking Lake St. Clair.