December 6, 2021

VUMC mourns loss of pediatric immunology expert Lawton

Alexander R. “Sandy” Lawton III, MD, emeritus professor of Pediatrics, died earlier this fall at 82.


by Rachel Vitolo

Alexander R. “Sandy” Lawton III, MD

Alexander R. “Sandy” Lawton III, MD, emeritus professor of Pediatrics, died earlier this fall. He was 82.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Dr. Lawton graduated magna cum laude from Yale University. He earned his medical degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he also completed his pediatric residency. Dr. Lawton conducted research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with John Settle Johnson, MD, and Anthony Fauci, MD, and established the inaugural Division of Pediatric Immunology and Rheumatology at the University of Alabama Birmingham before returning to Vanderbilt in 1980.

Dr. Lawton served for 28 years as the Edward Claiborne Stahlman Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Immunology and Rheumatology in the Department of Pediatrics. At Vanderbilt, he contributed original scientific research in human immunodeficiency that has had a significant impact on the lives of affected children. He was the author or co-author of more than 200 primary research articles and more than 70 invited reviews or book chapters.

Dr. Lawton’s work was continuously funded by the NIH for many years, and as a result of his scholarship, he was elected to membership in the American Pediatric Society, the American Association of Immunologists and the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He was a diplomate of the American Board of Pediatrics and the Sub-board of Pediatric Rheumatology. He served many years on the editorial boards of Clinical Immunology and Immunopathology, the Journal of Immunology, the Journal of Clinical Investigation and the Journal of Clinical Immunology.

“Sandy was a giant in the field of immunology,” said Donna Hummell, MD, professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Pulmonary Medicine.

“So much of what we take for granted today about how antibodies are produced is based directly upon some of his most insightful work. He was a dedicated teacher and mentored so many young physicians, launching them on their academic careers. He had a talent for encouraging his students to think scientifically, helping them to develop their sharpest clinical skills. Personally, he was much more than a mentor; he was a trusted colleague I could always count on and a dear lifelong friend.”

After his retirement in 2009, Dr. Lawton turned his focus to his many hobbies. He was an avid animal lover, talented photographer, and adored spending his time in nature. When he wasn’t making model airplanes or woodworking, he was traveling extensively with his wife, Deborah Doyle, MD, to New Zealand, Raja Ampat Archipelago, Antarctica, Scotland and more. They frequently sailed the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands in Doyle’s family boat and loved to charter boats in the Virgin Islands and Greece.

“Sandy was a quietly competent man, and he never used shortcuts or took the easy way out,” said Doyle. “He was a man of integrity, humble, kind and curious — and admired by so many.”

Dr. Lawton is survived by Doyle; son and daughter-in-law, Alexander Lawton IV and Kirsten; daughter, Julia Lawton; and grandchildren, Caitlin, Celia and Alexandra. Memorial service plans are pending.