Transplant pioneerJoseph E. Murray

A doctor, Murray was “just” a plastic surgeon. He specialized in reconstruction — repairing the damage of accidents, burns, and genetic defects — but was famous for something else. On December 23, 1954, he led the team that performed the first successful human organ transplant: a kidney, from a healthy 23-year-old man to his sickly twin brother. It worked, but “We were criticized for playing God,” he said years later. The surgical team had reservations about “taking a normal person and doing a major operation not for his benefit but for another person’s,” but indeed both patients survived. (The recipient, Richard Herrick, lived for eight years, dying when his disease destroyed the donated kidney; his brother, Ronald, lived to 79.)

Murray had been told his idea of transplanting organs was a “fringe” idea that should be abandoned as a “clinical dead end,” but his research before and after the operation opened the door for the successful transplants of not just kidneys, but livers, hearts, lungs, and other organs, which led him to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 (shared with E. Donnall Thomas, a pioneer in bone marrow transplantation. Dr. Thomas died in October.) Murray went on to train other doctors in transplantation, leveraging his knowledge to help hundreds of thousands of patients. He then went back to reconstructive plastic surgery. He retired to the lecture circuit, where he would tell audiences “It’s the best time ever to be a doctor, because you can heal and treat conditions that were untreatable even a few years ago.” Dr. Murray died on November 26 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — the same hospital where he performed that first-ever transplant — after a stroke. He was 93.

From This is True for 2 December 2012