Remembering Joseph E. Murray

Celebrating the life of the late transplant pioneer and Nobel laureate

Family, friends and colleagues of Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Murray, who died on Nov. 26, 2012, gathered on Jan. 10, 2013 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to celebrate Murray’s accomplishments in transplantation and reconstructive surgery and in transplantation biology.

Speakers shared the story of Murray’s life, a life of great accomplishment, great service to society and great humility. Murray’s work changed the nature of surgery, saving and improving many thousands of lives. Speakers recalled Murray’s legacy as a teacher, mentor, patriot and family man. The surgeon and researcher’s wife Bobby Murray, four of their six children and many other close family members and friends joined colleagues from Brigham and Women’s and the HMS community for the celebration.

Murray’s career began as a student at Harvard Medical School in 1940. He served as an Army surgeon during World War II, which helped him build a foundation for his later breakthroughs in transplantation biology, transplant surgery and craniofacial reconstructive surgery.

Joseph E. Murray. Photo courtesy Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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 Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, now part of Brigham and Women’s. This breakthrough came not just from advancing surgical technique, but also from years of rigorous research into the fundamental biology underlying successful transplantation.

“The ability to combine his gifts as a surgeon, clinician and researcher—and to apply a multidisciplinary approach—is what made Joe a true visionary,” said HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier, who spoke about Murray’s innovative work as a researcher in transplantation biology. “We do well to follow his example and take inspiration from the generous, enthusiastic spirit he embodied.”

In addition to remembrances from former students and colleagues, the program included two musical interludes: “The Impossible Dream,” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Richard Murray, who spoke about his father’s life as a family man, said that the musical selections were a perfect embodiment of his father’s irrepressible optimism. He also recalled a conversation he had years ago with his father who, in addition to his passion for medicine and research, loved literature.

When Richard had mentioned that he was reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his father said, “Ah, East of Eden. Chapter 34.” In this brief chapter, Steinbeck writes that, setting aside a man's eminence, works and monuments, there’s only one measuring stick by which a person’s death can truly be measured, writing, "the measuring stick is: "Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?"

“I think we all know what the answer is for my Dad,” Richard Murray said.

By proclamation of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, January 10, 2013 was declared to be Joseph E. Murray Day in the city of Boston.