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Hope, Innovation: Remembering A Transplant Pioneer

Renee Montagne talks with Dr. Atul Gawande about the life and work of Dr. Joseph E. Murray, who performed the first successful organ transplant in 1954. Murray died Monday at age 93.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Tuesday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The first doctor to successfully transplant an organ has died. Joseph Murray transplanted a kidney from one person to another back in 1954. More than 600,000 people have received organ transplants since then. Fifty years after the surgery, Dr. Murray told NPR that critics at the time compared him to Dr. Frankenstein.

DR. JOSEPH E. MURRAY: Well, they're saying that God didn't want this to happen. It's unnatural. The doctors are on an ego trip. We just did our work.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Murray was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990 in recognition of that pioneering work. He passed away yesterday at the age of 93 in Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, the very hospital where he carried out his historic surgery. We turn, now, to a man who knew Joseph Murray for decades. Atul Gawande is the medical writer for the New Yorker.

Good morning.

DR. ATUL GAWANDE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now I gather that Dr. Murray actually began, as a young doctor, as a plastic surgeon.

GAWANDE: He did. He served in World War II. He treated hundreds of burn victims. And trying to figure out how to treat them with skin grafts, he needed to find skin, sometimes, from elsewhere. But when he transplanted them they would reject those skin grafts. And that was when he started down the path of learning, you know, this more than hundred year old problem, people trying to imagine how could you transplant body parts from one person to another?

MONTAGNE: And when he finally came to doing those transplants, as we heard from him just now, his work sparked an ethical debate. Tell us more about that.

GAWANDE: You know, 1954, when he attempted his first successful transplant, was between twins, but he'd had six failures before then. This was a 22 year old with kidney failure from a strep infection, his name was Richard Herrick. And what was unusual about him was he had a twin brother. And what Joe Murray proposed, it seemed an entire leap, was that you would take the kidney from a healthy person and put it into his brother. People felt it was threatening the lives of two people. And they forged ahead.

MONTAGNE: I want to play a clip for you from an NPR interview several years ago, where Dr. Murray was asked if he thought he had been making history.

MURRAY: Oh no, we didn't think we made history. We didn't even think of history. We thought we were going to save a patient.

MONTAGNE: Save a patient. What does this say, looking back, about the man, Joseph Murray?

GAWANDE: You know, what's interesting about it is that it was exactly the way he saw it. He had people who were dying, we didn't understand what to do about kidney failure, and he thought he could solve this problem for this one person. You know, he had six deaths before that first successful transplant, he had 30 more deaths after that trying to figure out how you could transplant between people who were not related. He solved it. He learned how to use immunosuppressive drugs, he learned how to make it safe to do that. It's a tremendous legacy, and yet for him, it was just one by one, how do you make this next operation go better than the last one.

MONTAGNE: Well, was he also, as this indicates, a modest person - given he'd won a Nobel and did one of the more amazing things in medicine?

GAWANDE: Yeah, he was. He was deeply Catholic, which was interesting, because he was sometimes attacked by religious figures. And he understood that, you know, science is a dead end alleys. And you, sometimes just find an opening. It is not a eureka moment, it is not necessarily an act of genius. And he was modest about the fact that it required creativity and insight, but mostly it required sticking to this problem for, you know, what proved to be, a couple of decades before they really solved it.

MONTAGNE: Joseph Murray, the first doctor to successfully transplant an organ, died yesterday. Dr. Gawande, thank you very much for joining us.

GAWANDE: Delighted to be here.

MONTAGNE: Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston. And author, most recently, of "The Checklist Manifesto." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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