Medicine and Disease

Organ Transplantation

When was the first human organ transplant?

The first human organ transplant occurred on June 17, 1950, at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois. The suburban Chicago hospital, better known as the “baby hospital” for the high number of births there each year, was an unlikely place for this landmark in medical history. And the doctors who took part in the transplant tried to keep the highly experimental procedure quiet. The subject was a 44-year-old woman who suffered from polycystic kidney disease. She received a donor organ, a kidney, from a cadaver, making the procedure even more controversial for the Catholic hospital. (At the time, the church was opposed to the idea that tissue could be taken from a dead person and put into a living person, and that the tissue would then come to life again.) But the three doctors who performed the procedure had the confidence and trust of the sisters running the hospital. Doctors James W. West, Richard H. Lawler, and Raymond P. Murphy were surgeons on the faculty at Loyola’s Stricht School of Medicine and the Cook County Hospital but also practiced at Little Company of Mary. The operation was the last resort for the patient, who had seen her mother, sister, and uncle die from the same disease. Word leaked about the operation, and several days after the procedure, when the patient was doing well, the hospital and doctors went public with their breakthrough, making headlines around the world. The transplanted kidney functioned in the patient for about six weeks—enough time for her other kidney to begin working again; she lived another five years before finally succumbing to the disease.

On December 23, 1954, Harvard University physicians led by surgeon Joseph E. Murray (1919-) performed the world’s first successful transplant from a living donor, the patient’s identical twin brother. The operation took place at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital). Since the patient and the donor had the same genetic makeup, organ rejection was not an issue. The procedure saved the patient’s life, and the well-publicized breakthrough immediately opened up the possibility for similar transplants (between identical twins) as well as for the transplantation of other organs. Dr. Murray and other Harvard researchers continued working on the problem of rejection, eventually developing new drugs that reduce the possibility that a recipient would reject an organ from a non-relative. In 1990 Murray was awarded the Nobel prize for his pioneering work. He shared the prize with his friend and colleague E. Donnall Thomas (1920-), an innovator in bone marrow transplant.

Today tens of thousands of organs are transplanted each year in the United States. In October 2004 doctors performed the first organ transplant arranged and brokered over the Internet.


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