Joseph E. Murray, the surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School who performed the first human organ transplant almost six decades ago, has died. He was 93.
Murray, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 for his work in transplantation, died yesterday, Betsy Nabel, the president of Brigham in Boston, wrote in an e-mail to the hospital community.
In 1954, Murray led a team of Brigham doctors that gave 23-year-old Richard Herrick a kidney from his identical twin, Ronald. Since that time, more than 600,000 people have received life-saving organs through the transplantation techniques pioneered by Murray and his collaborators, according to Nabel.
“He brought comfort to thousands of patients and families with his compassion and the exquisite care he provided,” Nabel wrote. “He selflessly sought to share his knowledge with his colleagues and to teach and mentor younger Physicians.”
Before the Brigham team’s work, multiple attempts to transplant a kidney from one person to another had failed, largely because of the body’s natural tendency to reject foreign tissue. Murray was a plastic surgeon who had performing skin grafts early in his career on World War II burn victims.
Transplanting an organ between identical twins helped avoid many of the immune-system related problems seen in earlier attempts. Still, the surgery was technically daunting, and one physician labeled Murray and his colleagues a “group of fools” for trying to transplant a kidney, according an article that appeared last year on Harvard’s website.
“If you’re going to worry about what people say, you’re never going to make any progress,” Murray said in an interview, according to the Harvard story.
Murray was born in Milford, Massachusetts, about 30 miles southwest of Boston, according to an autobiographical piece posted on the Nobel website. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a lawyer and district judge. Murray received his undergraduate degree at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, the article said.
Murray wanted to be a surgeon “from earliest memory” and got his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in Boston. From there he went to Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, where he saw many burn patients, the Nobel article said. When patients didn’t have enough skin to cover their own burns, tissue was sometimes taken from other people as a “temporary surface cover,” he said in the article.
“The slow rejection of the foreign skin grafts fascinated me,” Murray said in the Nobel article. “How could the host distinguish another person’s skin from his own?”
Following the Herrick transplant, Murray spent years in surgical treatment and research and served as chief of plastic surgery at the Brigham, Nabel said.
“His legacy will forever endure in our hearts and in every patient who has received the gift of life through transplantation,” she said in the e-mail.