Medical Physicist Lawrence Lanzl, PhD, 1921-2001

Medical Physicist Lawrence Lanzl, PhD, 1921-2001

December 27, 2001

An authority on the use of radiation to treat cancer, Lawrence H. Lanzl, PhD, professor emeritus in the department of radiology and the Franklin McLean Memorial Research Institute at the University of Chicago, died from complications of cancer on Sunday, December 23, at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He was 80.

Lanzl was a pioneer in medical physics, a field that came into prominence during World War II with the development of nuclear reactors and the production of radioactive isotopes, which were used for both diagnostic and therapeutic medical procedures.

In the 1950s he helped design the linear accelerator at the University of Chicago, perhaps the first such device designed for use in a medical setting. He designed a special unit for treating patients with a radioactive isotope of the element cobalt, produced by a reactor. He also designed the first tissue-equivalent plastic and bone phantom, a life-sized manikin created to help scientists measure the depth and distribution of various forms of radiation therapy. The information this provided allowed physicians to improve the precision of radiation dosing.

Together with his colleague Lester Skaggs, Lanzl was instrumental in beginning and developing the graduate program in medical physics at the University of Chicago, which trained many of the leaders in the field.

"Larry was a fine person to work with," recalled Skaggs, now a professor emeritus of radiation and cellular oncology. "He was ambitious, enthusiastic, hard working and clever but nice and easy to get along with, and absolutely trustworthy."

"Larry Lanzl was a font of information on the interaction of radiation with matter and he was willing to take the time to explain whatever he knew," said Robert Beck, professor emeritus of radiology at the University. "I think he genuinely wanted to help people, his patients, his colleagues -- he wanted to help mankind. Once the war was over, I think he was excited about the opportunity to use atomic energy to help people."

Born April 8, 1921, in Chicago, Lanzl grew up in Highland Park, IL. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Northwestern University in 1943. He then worked under Enrico Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory, part of the Manhattan Project, at the University of Chicago. In 1944, he followed the project to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. After the War, he entered a graduate program in physics at the University of Illinois, completing his PhD in 1951.

Lanzl came to the University of Chicago in 1951 as a senior physicist at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH). A specialized facility, the first of its kind, ACRH was developed by the University and the Atomic Energy Commission to study the use of radiation in the treatment of cancer. Lanzl stayed at the University for almost 30 years, becoming a professor in 1968 in the department of radiology and in the ACRH, which became the Franklin McLean Institute in 1973.

After retiring from the University as a professor emeritus in 1980, Lanzl continued his teaching and research career at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. He set up a graduate program in medical physics there and served as professor and chairman of the department of medical physics, and as radiation safety officer, until 1991. He remained active in teaching until a few months before his death.

The author of scores of papers and several books, Lanzl won many awards for his research and was active in the professional organizations in medical physics. He served as President of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine from 1966 to 1967, and of the International Organization for Medical Physics from 1985 to 1988. He served as a consultant on radiation safety and radiation therapy for the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the United States Atomic Energy Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency. He was the editor of Health Physics from 1979 to 1983, and of Medical Physics World from 1983 to 1985. In 1993, The Lawrence Lanzl Institute of Medical Physics, in Seattle, Washington, was named in his honor.

Lanzl met his wife or 54 years, Elizabeth, when they were both graduate students. They worked together to study the use of high-energy electrons produced by a betatron at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. They participated in the first treatment of a cancer patient with this new form of radiation.

Lanzl is survived by Elizabeth, who is now an editor at the Franklin McLean Memorial Research Institute; one son, Eric Lanzl, and his wife Edith Finsaadal of Chicago; and a daughter, Dr. Barbara Lanzl Beutler of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and her three sons, Daniel, Elliott and Jonathan. He is also survived by two sisters, Mary Redmond of Lake Forest, Illinois; and Elsa Betty Noreiko of Alexandria, Virginia; and a brother, Carl Lanzl, of Los Angeles.

A memorial service is being planned for February.