A walk on the compassionate side

Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Dorr ’63 realized he wanted to go into medicine when he was 5 years old.

Dorr, the son of a Methodist minister, vividly remembers his first foray into compassion. “We were living in Dayton, Iowa, and a medical missionary from India came to speak,” he said. “I went upstairs, brought out my piggy bank, and said, ‘Take it back to India and cure people.’ ”

Compassion, he said, “was something I saw daily from my parents.”

Having found his calling, Dorr took an unusual pathway to medical school: he majored in English. At Cornell, “I realized if I didn’t get an understanding of subjects outside of science, I was never going to get it any other way,” said Dorr. He played on the 1961 conference championship football team and studied creative writing with award-winning novelist and professor Winifred Van Etten ’25 before heading to the University of Iowa for M.S. and M.D. degrees.

A whole-person approach to his life infuses his work today as a world leader in hip and joint replacement surgeries. “The mental aspect of taking care of patients is almost more important than the physical part,” he said. “If you’re concerned about their well-being and let them know you are, it makes them get better almost more than from the treatment you give them.”

His role model: Sir William Osler (1849–1919), dubbed the most influential physician in history. “His fame is not only because of scientific contributions to medicine but to the art of medicine and how to be a good doctor,” Dorr said.

Like Osler, Dorr is known for both scientific and creative work. His research led to the design of widely used orthopedic implants, including a hip joint now used by a Cornell mentor, Biology Professor Francis Pray. In 1994, Dorr created a grown-up equivalent of sending his piggy bank to India with Operation Walk. This international program sends operating crews to developing countries to perform knee and hip replacements and trains local doctors how to do the surgeries. It also offers internships to Cornell students.

Dorr, who serves on the Cornell Board of Trustees, began funding Dimensions because of his devotion to the college and to patient care. “I’m not a committee person,” he said. “I’m not even in favor of democracy in a situation like this. I think it takes strong leaders to make things like this work, plus enthusiasm and the ability to make decisive decisions.”