Transplant Pioneers Recall Medical Milestone

Dr. Joseph Murray performs the first organ transplant.

Dr. Joseph Murray and the medical team at Boston's Peter Bent Brigham Hospital perform the first successful long-term organ transplant, Dec. 23, 1954. Courtesy of 'Surgery of the Soul,' Science History Publications hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of 'Surgery of the Soul,' Science History Publications
Ronald Herrick (left) and his identical twin Richard toast their good health.

Ten months after the transplant, Ronald Herrick (left) and his identical twin Richard toast their good health. Courtesy of 'Surgery of the Soul,' Science History Publications hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of 'Surgery of the Soul,' Science History Publications
Dr. Joseph Murray (left) and Ronald Herrick

In July 2004, transplant pioneer Dr. Joseph Murray (left), 85, was reunited with his first organ donor, Ronald Herrick, 73, at the U.S. Transplant Games in Minneapolis. Richard Herrick died eight years after his kidney transplant. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro, NPR

On Dec. 23, 1954, doctors in Boston gave a kidney to a seriously ill, 23-year-old man in the first successful long-term transplant of a human organ. Since then, transplants have saved more than 400,000 lives. But as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, that's something transplant pioneer Dr. Joseph Murray never imagined.

Memories of a Medical First

In chapter 9 of his autobiography, Surgery of the Soul, Dr. Joseph Murray recalls the events before and after that first kidney transplant. Read excerpts below:

"We didn't think we made history," Murray says of that first transplant. "We didn't even think of history. We thought we were going to save a patient."

Murray, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work, thought transplants would be able to help just a tiny number of people. "It seemed almost impossible that you would have twins, one dying of kidney disease and another healthy," Murray says.

Indeed, Murray's first patient and donor were identical twins. They had to be — they needed the same genetic make up, or else the recipient's immune system would reject the donated organ. It would be years before doctors figured out ways to trick the immune system.

Ronald Herrick was a healthy 23-year-old who had just been discharged from the Army. His twin brother Richard had just gotten out of the Coast Guard — and was in a hospital, dying of kidney disease.

Ronald Herrick says going through with the then-untried medical procedure was a difficult decision, but when Richard tried to call off the operation the night before surgery, Ronald stood firm.

"I sent him back a message, 'We're going to do it'," Ronald Herrick recalls. "And that was the end of that."

Web Resources

This National Kidney Foundation Web site has historical photos, patient tributes and more on this medical milestone.

Books Featured In This Story

Surgery of the Soul
Surgery of the Soul

Reflections on a Curious Career

by Joseph E., M.D. Murray

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