Alexander 'Sandy' Robert Lawton III

Sandy LawtonA life in science, rich in inspiration

FRANKLIN – A life in medical research can be complex, inaccessible and lonely. For Sandy Lawton, his groundbreaking work in immunology and rheumatology – a career that kept him at the forefront of medical advances – was anything but that.

Combining teaching, research and leading younger scientists through their own experiments resulted in a life both sweeping in its arc of accomplishments and driven by relationships that launched many young colleagues to significant careers of their own.

“I still miss the pleasure and stimulation of the vigorous, no-holds barred and challenging debates we used to have on each scientific and clinical problem that we faced,’’ said Dr. Max D. Cooper, a Lawton colleague and Emory School of Medicine researcher at the time of Lawton’s retirement in 2008.

His colleague of over 25 years, Dr. Donna Hummell commented: “Sandy (Dr. Lawton) was a giant in the field of immunology. So much of what we take for granted today about how antibodies are produced to protect us against infection is based directly upon some of his most insightful work. He was a dedicated teacher, and mentored so many, 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. For me personally, he was much more than a mentor: a trusted colleague I could always count on, and a very dear, dear lifelong friend.”

Dr. Alexander “Sandy” Lawton III died August 22, 2021 at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. His passing brought to an end a medical research career that spanned decades as Lawton and his collaborators worked to understand immune cells at the cellular level, including complex blood cancers, some of which afflicted young children.

Lawton was born in Savannah, Georgia and attended the Asheville School for Boys. He attended Yale University, graduating in 1960 before earning his medical degree from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1964. He earned a fellowship at the National Institute of Health from 1966-69 in Bethesda, MD. From 1969 to 1980, he worked in the Division of Pediatric Immunology and Rheumatology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, before moving on as the Edward C. Stahlman Chair, Professor and Director of the Division of Pediatric Immunology and Rheumatology at the Vanderbilt University of Medicine in Nashville.

For those who understand the complex and fast-evolving world of immunology and rheumatology, Lawton’s contributions were substantial and virtually non-stop throughout his career. His name appeared on groundbreaking studies, often listed as the first name, starting in the 1970s and continuing to his retirement. He was elected to American Society of Clinical Investigation in 1976 for outstanding contributions as a physician-scientist. He also received teaching awards, being cited in 2002-2003 for Excellence in Resident Education by the Department of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

At each stop along Lawton’s storied career, the science became more complex, the papers more challenging, but he found a way to inspire his colleagues and students with the wonder of human lymphocytes, their differentiation to produce antibodies and their complex interactions.He was a renowned expert on their central role in host responses to infection and in forms of immune deficiency. He became known for his incredible intellect and quick ability to understand and then explain complex scientific data while at the same time putting people at ease. Over time, his studies bridged the separate studies of immunology and rheumatology, which inspired Dr.Troy Torgeson, a nationally renowned researcher and expert in immunodeficiency and one of his former students, to credit Lawton with a new paradigm. “Sandy helped me to understand how to wear both immunology and rheumatology hats simultaneously.” Torgeson said. “You were trailblazers.’’

Dr. Hiromi Kubagawa, a former Lawton student, recalled staying up late with Lawton to practice his first manuscript presentation in America – a treatise presented at a national meeting in San Francisco on clonal development and antibodies in multiple myeloma – a bone marrow disease.

“As Sandy and I shared a room the in the hotel, I practiced many times in front of him and my presentation seemed to be smooth,’’ Kubagawa recalled. Then, he said, Lawton made sure Kubagawa called his wife, Yoshiki, and later taught him to appreciate the wonders of Crimson Tide football. “Yoshiki and I became crazy Alabama football fans and this fanatic attitude is still the case!” he said.

Still, throughout his career Lawton reminded his students about life outside the laboratory and clinics. He taught them to care for their spouses and appreciate the beauty of the natural world.

Dr. James Crowe, now a renowned physician and researcher at Vanderbilt, credited Lawton with inspiring his professional life, but also for guiding his private appreciations as well. Lawton, he said, was a loyal and loving spouse and took time to seek solace and inspiration along the South Carolina and Georgia shorelines. Crowe noted that even after the death of his first wife, Lawton chose to live on and seek happiness.

“Through the darkest moment of pandemic,’’ Crowe said, “when Lisa and I escaped to Jekyll Island for long walks on deserted beaches, we always thought about that part of his life and we shared the attraction – the wildness, the history. I thank him for (his) kindness to let me know directly.’’

Lawton was, in many ways, a Renaissance man. He pursued photography from the age of 10. He sailed avidly, including in races against media-mogul and America’s Cup racer Ted Turner. He was an accomplished equestrian, dabbled in wood working, gardening, played golf and built and flew model airplanes. He developed lasting friendships including one with Will Sanders (former CFO of Turner Broadcasting) whom he referred to as family, he and Will were Junior High sailing buddies, Yale roommates and friends for over seven decades.

In 1960, Lawton married Frances Ritchie Crockett and remained so doting a husband, his students noted they modeled their relationships on his. After his first wife’s death, he married Dr. Deborah R. Doyle in 2007 and remained married to his death. A sister, Bernardine (Bunny) Lawton who died in 2020, preceded him in death. He is survived by his wife Deborah, daughter Julia B. Lawton, son Alexander (Sandy) R. Lawton IV and his wife Kirsten Seibert, and grandchildren Caitlin Caulkins, Celia Lawton and Sasha Lawton.