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Pioneering hip surgeon Lawrence Dorr, founder of Operation Walk, dies

A doctor in scrubs
Lawrence Dorr’s Operation Walk grew into an international charity.
(Operation Walk)

Lawrence Dorr, a surgeon who led early developments in joint replacement surgery and helped make Los Angeles an international destination for the repair of ailing hips and knees, has died at 79.

Dorr also started the nonprofit Operation Walk to provide free joint replacement surgery for people in underserved countries such as Cuba, Nepal, and Guatemala. It has grown into an international charity.

He retired from Keck Hospital of USC last year after a career spanning more than five decades. He died Dec. 28 in that same hospital from complications of bacterial pneumonia, his longtime nurse Jeri Ward said.

Dorr was one of the pioneers of installing prosthetic joints that don’t require cement. He designed one of the first such joints on a napkin at a New Orleans hotel in 1982 while dining with his mentor, orthopedist Chitranjan Ranawat, and the chief executive of an implant company. To make his hip replacement design, which has become an industry standard, Dorr used knowledge he gained early in his career at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.

“I would spend hours operating on cadaver hips and learning where every blood vessel and nerve was,” he said. “It made me more confident as a surgeon.”

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His research led in 1993 to the Dorr Bone Classification system, which is commonly used to categorize bone types prior to hip reconstruction. In the 2000s he helped develop computer technology to assist with hip and knee replacement.

Dorr was born April 13, 1941, in Storm Lake, Iowa. His father was a Methodist minister who dreamed of being a missionary and when Dorr was 5, a missionary physician he remembered as Bishop Rocky spent the night with the family during a journey to raise money for his medical clinic in India.

Impressed by the visitor’s stories, Dorr broke open his porcelain piggy bank and gave the contents to the missionary, vowing that he too would become a doctor, he said.

He was studying medicine at the University of Iowa when he met his wife, Marilyn, at a bar near campus called the Airliner. They married in 1966, and Dorr went on to earn degrees in pharmacology and medicine. After his internship, he served in the Navy as an anesthesiologist. He completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at what is now LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles before starting his fellowship in joint replacement under Ranawat in New York.

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He returned to Los Angeles to begin his career as an orthopedic surgeon in 1978. He went on to publish hundreds of peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters, and books on the practice of total joint replacement. He trained more than 100 clinical and research fellows.

In a book he was working on at the time of his death, he recalled an invitation to teach new surgical techniques in Russia in 1994 with a small team of American doctors. There he came across a newspaper story about the charitable group Operation Smile, which travels the world doing surgery on impoverished children to correct cleft lips.

“Tumblers clicked in my brain,” he wrote. “Maybe we’d take our surgical skills on the road to do knee and hip replacements in poor countries for people who couldn’t get them otherwise.”

He founded Operation Walk and pulled together teams of surgeons, doctors, nurses and physical therapists who all donated their time to operate on as many as 100 patients per trip and to educate local healthcare professionals in countries such as Cuba, China, Nepal, Philippines, El Salvador, Tanzania, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Vietnam.

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He encouraged other surgeons to spin off their own teams, and Operation Walk, which will continue its mission, has operated on more than 13,000 people abroad and in the U.S.

Dorr lived in Pasadena. He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.


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