A medical doctor, Green didn’t want to treat people, he wanted to just do research on improving medical care and treatments. He became a professor in cell biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1974, while working in an MIT laboratory, Green was working with Dr. Burton D. Goldberg to replicate a mouse tumor for use in medical research. They failed. On the other hand, they realized that rather than replicating a tumor, they instead replicated epithelial cells — the cells that make up the outer layer of skin. They then went to work to figure out how to grow them better. “Once we learned how to grow the cells, it was obvious what we were going to do,” he said later. “Use them for people with third-degree burns.”
By 1981, Dr. Green had figured out a process to treat moderately sized burns by using a small patch of the victim’s skin to grow more. Their biggest challenge came in 1983, when three young boys from Wyoming were terribly burned in an accident. The 6-year-old died; two brothers, 5 and 7, who had third-degree burns over 97 percent of their bodies, were flown to Denver for treatment, and then transferred to Boston. Dr. Green, by then chairman of the cell biology department at Harvard Medical School, was pressed into service: his skin would be the only chance the boys would have. “We weren’t prepared to do it on that scale because we did not have the trained manpower,” Dr. Green said later, “but we agreed to try because the boys had no chance to survive otherwise.” Using a tiny amount of undamaged skin from the boys’ armpits, he was able to grow more, and a plastic surgeon grafted the skin onto the boys. And then they started over, to treat another area. The treatment with Dr. Green’s artificially produced skin — dubbed “test-tube skin” — worked. It took about a year to repair all of their burns, but the boys survived and were able to return home. That would be good enough, but the procedures for replicating the skin led to the creation of another field: stem cell research, which is now saving countless lives. “It’s really the first stem cell therapy,” says Dr. Nicholas O’Connor, the plastic surgeon who used Dr. Green’s lab-grown skin to save the young brothers. Dr. Green died from respiratory failure on October 31, at 90.