Obituary: Joseph Murray / Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of kidney transplants

April 1, 1919 - Nov. 26, 2012

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Joseph Murray, the surgeon who 58 years ago stitched a new kidney into a young man dying of renal failure -- an operation that was recognized as the first successful human organ transplant, died Monday in Boston. He was 93.

The cause was hemorrhagic stroke, said his son, Richard Murray.

Joseph Murray was one of two physicians who received the 1990 Nobel Prize in medicine for their pioneering work in transplant therapy. The other, medical researcher E. Donnall Thomas, who developed the bone marrow transplant, died in October.

In their separate fields, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute found, the two men made discoveries that have proved "crucial for those tens of thousands of severely ill patients who either can be cured or be given a decent life when other treatment methods are without success."

Dr. Murray began his work in the late 1940s at the Boston hospital where he died, the institution then known as Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and now called Brigham and Women's Hospital. In the early years of his career, he practiced on dogs to perfect his nearly sartorial technique of sewing a donor kidney into a patient's body.

Later, he helped other researchers develop radiation treatments and drugs to suppress a patient's immune system and prevent organ rejection, the most serious complication presented by transplant procedures.

His work on kidney transplants helped lead to successful transplant techniques for other organs, including the heart, lungs, liver and pancreas. Jean-Michel Dubernard, the surgeon who in 2005 was credited with performing the first partial face transplant, said he dedicated the operation to Dr. Murray.

He was a young Army doctor when he first became fascinated by the body's ability -- or refusal -- to weave foreign tissue into the fabric of its own system. At Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, he performed skin grafts on returning soldiers disfigured in combat and fires in World War II.

Some ethicists questioned the morality of removing an organ from a healthy person to save the life of someone else. After all, they said, the Hippocratic oath required doctors to do no harm. Meanwhile, numerous patients died in the early years of organ transplants. Surgical techniques were imprecise, and doctors lacked the immunosuppressive therapies to prevent rejection.

With the surgery they performed on Dec. 23, 1954, Dr. Murray and his team of surgeons began to assuage some of those concerns. The patient, Richard Herrick, 23, was suffering from end-stage renal failure. His identical twin, Ronald, had stepped forward to offer his kidney. Because the men shared the same DNA, organ rejection was unlikely.

The procedure took 51/2 hours. J. Hartwell Harrison, Dr. Murray's colleague, removed the healthy kidney from Ronald Herrick. The organ was wrapped in a wet towel, placed in a stainless steel container and rushed to the operating room where Dr. Murray was waiting with Richard Herrick.

"It was marvelous," Dr. Murray told National Public Radio, recalling the moment when he saw the kidney begin to work. "It just pinked up the way we wanted, little punctated blood vessels all over the kidney surface, and they were snug as a bug in a rug."

Richard Herrick survived eight years -- marrying one of his nurses and having two children -- before he died of a recurrence of the disease. In that time, Dr. Murray continued to improve his surgical technique.

In 1962, he and his colleagues achieved perhaps their biggest breakthrough: the first transplant from an unrelated donor, a man who had died in heart surgery.

Dr. Murray later returned to plastic surgery, the field of medicine that first interested him in transplants. He was credited with developing procedures to repair congenital facial defects in children and once said that some facial reconstructions were more difficult than transplant surgeries. He retired in 1986.

Joseph Edward Murray was born April 1, 1919, in Milford, Mass. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father was a district court judge. He received a bachelor's degree in classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1940 and a medical degree from Harvard University in 1943.

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