Transplant pioneer who was accused of playing God


JOSEPH MURRAY: Dr Joseph E Murray, who died last Monday in Boston, aged 93, opened a new era of medicine with the first successful human organ transplant.

Murray’s groundbreaking surgical feat came in 1954, when he removed a healthy kidney from a 23-year-old man and implanted it in the man’s ailing identical twin.

Murray, who died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he had performed that first transplant, went on to pioneer techniques that over the years changed the lives of tens of thousands of patients who received new kidneys, hearts, lungs, livers or other organs after their own had failed.

In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As director of the surgical research laboratory at Harvard Medical School and at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, which became Brigham and Women’s, Murray was a leader in the study of transplant techniques, the mechanisms of organ rejection and the use of drugs to thwart it.

Among other procedures, he performed kidney transplants involving more than two dozen pairs of identical twins. He performed the first successful transplant to a non-identical recipient, in 1959, and the first using a cadaver kidney in 1962. And he trained doctors who became leaders in transplantation around the world.

Though Murray devoted most of his career to reconstructive plastic surgery, he was most famous as a transplant surgeon, especially after receiving the Nobel. He shared the $703,000 prize with Dr E Donnall Thomas, a pioneer in bone marrow transplantation, who died in October.

Joseph Edward Murray was born on April 1st, 1919, in Milford, Massachusetts, the son of William Murray, a judge, and Mary DePasquale Murray, a schoolteacher. He attended the College of the Holy Cross and Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1943. After an abbreviated internship at Brigham, he entered the army medical corps in 1944.

It was his experience as an army doctor, especially using cadaver skin to treat burned soldiers, that led him to both transplantation and facial reconstruction.

When he returned to civilian life and began practising as a plastic and general surgeon at Brigham, he joined colleagues in investigating the possibilities of organ transplants.

At the time, he recalled, organ transplantation was considered such a wild dream that a medical school mentor advised him to abandon the idea as a clinical dead end.

But he and his colleagues began testing surgical techniques with dogs, removing and reimplanting kidneys. Then, in October 1954, Richard Herrick, a Massachusetts man dying of chronic nephritis, a kidney disease, was admitted to the hospital, and his doctors referred him to Murray as a possible transplant recipient. The man’s identical twin, Ronald, was willing to give him a kidney. Would Murray perform the surgery?

It was a daunting prospect. Murray worried about “taking a normal person and doing a major operation not for his benefit but for another person’s”, he said in the 2001 interview.

“We were criticised for playing God,” he said.

The surgery took place on December 23rd, 1954. As Murray wrote later: “There was a collective hush in the operating room” as blood began to flow into the implanted kidney and urine began to flow out of it.

Richard Herrick, who later married one of his nurses, survived until 1962, when he died of a recurrence of his original disease. Ronald Herrick died in 2010 at 79.

In 1971, Murray resigned as chief of transplant surgery at Brigham to concentrate on plastic surgery – a field, he often said with regret, that had become wrongly associated with mere cosmetic procedures.

In the US and abroad, he treated hundreds of children and adults with congenital facial deformities, survivors of drastic surgery for head and neck cancers, and patients with injuries or other problems.

In 1945, Murray married Virginia Link, an aspiring singer he had met at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert while he was in medical school.

In addition to Virginia Murray, known as Bobby, his survivors include three sons, Richard, J Link and Thomas; three daughters, Virginia Murray, Margaret Murray Dupont and Dr Katherine Murray Leisure; and 18 grandchildren.

Born April 1st, 1919 Died November 26th, 2012