Celebrating Joseph Murray, Surgeon on the First Successful Organ Transplant

Born 100 years ago this week, Joseph Murray changed modern medicine by performing the first successful kidney transplant.

A physician holds a kidney

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History is full of unsung heroes, people who did great things with little to no far-reaching recognition. Just as common are people who performed great deeds and were celebrated in their time but whose stories have been forgotten as the years moved on.

Joseph Murray is one such forgotten hero. He served both in the military and on the faculty at Harvard. As a surgical pioneer, he performed the first successful organ transplant and was awarded a Nobel Prize. Born 100 years ago this week, Joseph Murray has an American story that you need to know.

Joseph Murray
Joseph Murray (Photo ©Eric Miller/JAMA; Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Murray was born in Massachusetts on April 1, 1919. A star multi-sport athlete in his younger years, he enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross with a plan to play baseball. However, when he learned that lab classes conflicted with baseball practice, Murray put the sports aside. He earned his humanities degree in 1940 and went on to Harvard Medical School. After earning his medical degree, he interned at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital near Harvard, and enlisted into the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

During World War II, Murray worked in the plastic surgery unit at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge General Hospital. One of his primary responsibilities was treating injured soldiers; he performed procedures such as skin grafts on patients who had suffered burns and other injuries. Watching grafts heal, Murray and his colleagues realized that whole organ implantation might be possible.

After his discharge from the Army, Murray finished a general surgical residency and joined the staff at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. He took additional plastic surgery training at two New York hospitals before coming back to Brigham in 1951.

J. Hartwell Harrison
J. Hartwell Harrsion (Photo by HoppyH; Wikimedia Commons)

The culmination of Murray’s interest and study in transplantation occurred on December 23, 1954. Murray and a team of doctors, including noted surgeons J. Hartwell Harrison and John P. Merrill, transplanted a kidney from 23-year-old Ronald Herrick into his twin brother, Richard, who had been fighting chronic nephritis, a kidney inflammation that can lead to a variety of life-threatening problems. Harrison removed the kidney from Ronald, and Murray implanted it in Richard. Though Richard lived for only eight more years after the transplant, the surgery was considered a success.

Team of physicians with the Herrick Brothers
Murray transplant team with the Herrick Brothers. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the operation, Murray became a world leader in organ transplants. In 1959, he also performed the first successful allograft, a type of cellular transplant that was the forerunner of procedures like bone marrow transplants. While serving on the Harvard Medical School faculty, Murray trained students and visiting surgeons from around the world and traveled himself to conduct surgeries and transplants in developing nations. He was chief plastic surgeon at Brigham (today’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital) until his retirement in 1986; during much of that time, he was also the chief plastic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Murray received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 in acknowledgement of his work in organ transplantation. Among his many other accolades, he was awarded the American Surgical Association’s Medal for Distinguished Service to Surgery, the American Association of Plastic Surgeon’s Honorary Award, the Clinician of the Year prize, the National Kidney Foundation’s Gift of Life Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Francis Amory Prize. He was also named Academician of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican in 1996.

Surgery of the Soul: Reflections on a Curious Career, Murray’s autobiography, was released in 2001. Murray passed away at the age of 93 in 2012; fittingly, he drew his last breath at Brigham, the hospital where he made the breakthroughs that would save scores of other lives. Joseph Murray is an overlooked American hero, but his legacy will never fade.

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