Remembering Transplant Pioneer Joseph Murray


Joseph Murray, M.D.At the end of every year, we recall the notable people who have departed our worldly domain.  Naturally, most are entertainers, political figures and other luminaries.  We should also highlight noted personalities in the sciences.  Before the first week of 2013 is past, recall one of the most noted individuals to pass in 2012 – an important figure who hailed from the scientific and medical arena.

Joseph Murray M.D. died on November 26, 2012, and though he may not be a household name, he was one of the most accomplished plastic surgeons in history, and one of the major figures in 20th century medicine.

Dr. Murray was the first surgeon to perform a solid-organ transplant when on December 23, 1954; he transplanted the kidney of Ronald Herrick into his identical-twin brother Richard, who suffered from end-stage renal disease.  The procedure ushered in the contemporary era of transplantation, and from this accomplishment Dr. Murray shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Today’s medical world is a bit different from the one in which Dr. Murray came of age and made his mark on medical history.  Laypersons may be surprised to learn that a plastic surgeon performed the first kidney transplant.  But in that era plastic surgery encompassed a wide domain, and surgeons could develop expertise in their areas of interest.  Dr. Murray became interested in transplantation after noting rejection patterns of skin grafts from unrelated donors during his work treating soldiers injured in World War II.

At this time, specialties developed based on advances in physiology allowing work that was previously not feasible.  Advances in anesthesia and critical care allowed bigger and bolder interventions to be attempted and accomplished.  The first kidney transplant was followed by refinements in technique, a better understanding of immunology, and an expansion of acceptable donor and recipient criteria.

Further advances led to success in liver, heart, heart-lung and other types of transplant procedures.  The early kidney procedures involved identical twins, avoiding the problem of organ rejection.  While developing the technical aspects of transplant surgery was critical, wider application came from better understanding of transplant immunology, which Dr. Murray helped lead.

Today transplantation of kidneys and other organs is commonplace.  That is largely due to the efforts of Dr. Murray and others in this developing field.  Science advances one step at a time, and in the field of transplantation many of those steps led to and from the work of Joseph Murray.

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