The First Successful Organ Transplant
Ever since the 18th century, scientists have experimented with organ transplants on animals and even humans. There were many failures over the years, but by the mid-20th century, scientists were performing successful organ transplants. Transplants of kidneys, livers, hearts, pancreata, intestine, lungs, and heart-lungs are now considered routine medical treatment.
Important medical breakthroughs such as tissue typing and immunosuppressant drugs allow for more organ transplants and a longer survival rate for recipients.
At the turn of the 20th Century, many attempts were made at transplanting organs, especially between animals of the same and different species. Some were successful and some were not. Organ transplants had also been attempted with humans but none of them were successful and all the patients died or rejected the transplants.
The First Organ Transplant
The first successful organ transplant was performed on December 23, 1954, by Dr. Joseph E. Murray at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston (later Brigham and Women’s Hospital), Massachusetts. The surgery was a kidney transplant between two identical twins.
Some doctors and scientists were developing ways of grafting healthy kidneys for people whose organs had failed, and they were looking for twins to try for the first surgery. A team of local doctors from Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston had already completed a number of successful kidney grafts on humans, some working for days and even months, and were ready to try the transplant operation on Richard Herrick, who had an identical twin brother.
Surgeons led by Dr. Joseph E. Murray transplanted a kidney from Ronald into Richard; because the donor and recipient were genetically identical, the kidney was not rejected, and the surgery was successful.
The surgery was performed under general anaesthesia and involved the removal of one twin’s healthy kidney and its transplantation into the other twin. The donor kidney was flushed with a solution to preserve it and then placed in a special plastic bag to keep it sterile. The recipient’s abdominal cavity was opened and the kidney was inserted into place. The donor’s and recipient’s blood vessels were then connected to the kidney and the urine tube was sewn into place. Finally, the donor’s wound was closed and the patient was taken off of anaesthesia.
Both twins survived the operation. The recipient’s body accepted the donor’s kidney and the twin went on to live for another eight years. The donor twin also recovered well.
Richard’s new kidney functioned perfectly for 8 years until his death on March 14, 1963, from complications of Asian flu and pneumonia. At that time, he married the nurse who cared for him in the recovery room (Clare Burta Herrick) and had two children with her.
In 1990, Dr. Joseph E. Murray was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in organ transplantation.