Dr. Joseph Murray, Transplant Pioneer and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93

One of the shining stars of plastic surgery is gone. Dr. Joseph E. Murray, who performed the world’s first successful kidney transplant and received a Nobel Prize for his work, died late last month at the age of 93. Dr. Murray died on November 26 after suffering a stroke at his Boston home on Thanksgiving.

Like many plastic surgeons of his time, Murray had a military background, and performed reconstructive surgeries on troops who had been injured on the front. Burn patients were often treated with skin grafts from other people, and the fact that skin grafts tended to be more successful when donors and recipients were closely related was a matter of great interest to Dr. Murray. As he wrote his autobiography for the Nobel Prize ceremony, “The slow rejection of the foreign skin grafts fascinated me. How could the host distinguish another person’s skin from his own?”

After the war, Dr. Murray went to work at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, which is now known as Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He and his colleagues developed a number of new surgical techniques through successful kidney transplant in dogs. In 1954, Dr. Murray and his team successfully transplanted kidney from 23-year-old Ronald Herrick to his twin brother Richard Herrick, who was suffering from end-stage kidney failure.

Dr. Murray continued to perform transplants on identical twins. As far as transplant operations go, identical twins present the least amount of risk – since the transplanted organs are genetically identical to the host body, there is no risk of foreign tissue rejection. Dr. Murray added to the growing body of knowledge on immunosuppression by performing kidney transplants on close relatives. With the development of immunosuppressive drugs, he was able to move beyond radiation therapy, and performed the first organ transfer from an unrelated donor in 1962.

Throughout the rest of his career, Dr. Murray continued to practice plastic surgery and the transplant surgeries that he had pioneered. In 1990, he shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or Medicine with E. Donnall Thomas, who had developed bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for leukemia.

Image credit: Harvard Medical School Archives