Joseph E. Murray, emeritus professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, whose many breakthroughs included the first successful kidney transplant, died on Nov. 26, 2012, after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke at his Wellesley, Mass., home on Thanksgiving Day. He was 93.
Murray shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with E. Donnell Thomas HMS ’46 for conducting the world’s first successful organ transplant in 1954.
At the time, relatively little was known about the intricate workings of the human immune system, but it was clear that a patient’s immune response posed a formidable barrier to transplantation, a problem Murray confronted while serving as a plastic surgeon during World War II.
Murray joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps after graduating from HMS in 1943. Many of his patients were soldiers with burn injuries, some so severe that the patient didn’t have enough undamaged skin for a graft. When Murray tried grafts using another person’s skin, he would watch with frustration as the patient’s body slowly rejected the graft.
With immunosuppression in its infancy, Murray focused instead on the possibility of transplants from a donor closely related to the patient. By the early 1950s, he had achieved significant success with transplants between animals. Based on that progress, and the progress that others were making in the field, he proposed that a patient might accept an organ transplanted from an identical twin.
In 1954, Richard Herrick, a 23-year-old man with severe kidney disease, was referred to Murray. Although there was no medical cure, Murray told Herrick he did have cause for hope: his identical twin brother, Ronald, had healthy kidneys. No one had ever been asked to donate a healthy organ, but Ronald was quick to agree.
Knowing that they were taking an extraordinary course of action, everyone involved agreed to keep word of the surgery under wraps. The story did get out, however, leaked from an unexpected source. To confirm that the twins were indeed identical, Murray arranged for the brothers to be fingerprinted at a Boston police station. An enterprising newspaper reporter on the police beat got word of the unusual “booking,” and the lid was off.
The surgery was performed on Dec. 23, 1954, at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Both brothers fully recovered from the groundbreaking operation. Richard went on to marry one of his nurses, with whom he had two children before his death from complications of kidney disease, in 1963. Ronald died in 2010, at age 79.
Murray went on to perform the first transplant using a kidney from a non-identical twin in 1959 and the first transplant from a deceased donor in 1962. The age of organ transplantation had arrived.
Murray continued to lead the way in transplant surgery, serving as head of the program at the Brigham until 1971. At that point, he later told an interviewer from the Journal of the American Medical Association, he decided to focus on his “true calling,” plastic surgery. “At heart, I’m a reconstructive surgeon.” That prompted his friend and colleague, Francis Moore, to note, “Joe’s the only guy who ever won a Nobel Prize for pursuing a hobby.”
As head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, Murray was a leader in craniofacial reconstruction. He introduced a procedure that corrected head deformities by resectioning and moving forward the bones of the head and face.
In 1986, Murray suffered a stroke and, while he was quick to recover and cleared for returning to the operating room, he chose to retire. Murray continued to serve HMS, however, as a member of the HMS Alumni Council, and as chairman of the Alumni Fund until 1992. He also served on the National Campaign Committee, as a Third Century Fellow, and as co-chairman of the Ezekiel Hersey Council.
“I had 48 years of surgery under my belt and I decided to just enjoy other aspects of my life,” Murray said.
Those aspects included an active retirement with Virginia “Bobby” Link, whom he married in 1945, their six children and 18 grandchildren. Murray also published an autobiography, Surgery of the Soul, in 2001. On several occasions, he reunited with Ronald Herrick and the extended Herrick family, including Richard’s widow and children.