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Early Organ Transplant

The idea of transplanting organs is not new. It can be found in myths of the ancient Greeks and was referred to by even older civilizations.

Early Transplantation

Some of the earliest recorded attempts at bone transplantation date back to the Middle Ages. As you can imagine, the bravery of those first patients and doctors far surpassed the sophistication of the medicine available to them at that time.

In the late 19th century renowned Swiss surgeon Jacques-Louis Reverdin performed the first successful skin transplant. This breakthrough paved the way for the first successful skin graft, which was performed in Denmark in 1870.

The First Organ Transplant

On June 17, 1950, Dr. Richard Lawler, Dr. James West and Dr. Raymond Murphy performed the first successful kidney transplant at Little Company of Mary Hospital, Evergreen Park, IL.

The patient, Ruth Tucker, was a 49-year-old with polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Both of Ruth’s kidneys had been damaged by PKD, one functioned at only 10% and the other no longer functioned. Ruth’s mother and sister had both died from PKD and because dialysis was not yet widely available, Ruth knew a kidney transplant was her only option to survive.

Tissue typing did not exist at this time, so organ selection for transplants was based on very basic criteria such as gender, blood type, and finding a donor roughly the same age and physical size as the recipient. A suitable match was found for Ruth after 5 weeks of waiting in the hospital; her donor had died of cirrhosis of the liver. In an interview after the surgery, Dr. Lawler, commented: “Not the most ideal [donor] patient, but the best we could find.”

Dr. Lawler had performed a few experimental organ transplants in dogs and translated the knowledge he gained to perform Ruth’s transplant surgery. With roughly 40 other physicians looking on, Dr. Lawler and his team completed the procedure within 45 minutes after removal of the donor kidney. Ruth was released from the hospital 30 days later.

Because tissue typing and immunosuppressive agents did not exist at this time, Ruth’s new kidney was rejected by her body and had to be removed 10 months after the surgery. However, because the transplanted kidney functioned before having to be removed, it helped restore function in Ruth’s remaining kidney and allowed her to live another 5 years.

Success in Organ Transplantation

At only 23 years old, Richard Herrick was dying. After his discharge from the Coast Guard, Richard went home to Massachusetts to be with his family when he was diagnosed with kidney disease. At the time, this diagnosis was a death sentence and by October of 1954 his health was deteriorating. Most transplant donors at this time were biological relatives of the recipient to reduce the risk of organ rejection. Luckily, Richard had an identical twin brother, Ronald.  

A team of local doctors at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital had already successfully completed a series of human kidney grafts, some of which functioned for days or even months, they were willing to attempt the transplant between Richard and Ronald. In December of 1954 the surgeons, led by Dr. Joseph E. Murray transplanted a kidney from Ronald into his twin brother Richard; since donor and recipient were genetically identical, the kidney was not rejected, and the procedure was a success.

Early Advances in Transplant

In the late 1960’s pancreas, liver and heart transplants were successfully performed, but the potential for rejection of transplanted organs limited the number of transplants performed for the next two decades. Medical advances in the prevention and treatment of rejection -specifically the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporine – led to more successful transplants. By 1986 transplants were much more common, 9,000 kidney transplants were performed that year in the US with a survival rate of over 85% for the first year.