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Pioneering transplant doctor Joseph Murray dies in Boston

The Nobel Prize winner was 93.

Image: Eric Miller/AP/Press Association Images

DR JOSEPH E. Murray, who performed the world’s first successful kidney transplant and won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work, has died in Boston. He was 93.

Murray’s death was confirmed Monday by Brigham and Women’s Hospital spokesman Tom Langford. No cause of death has been announced.

He died at the same Boston hospital he performed the world’s first organ transplant in.

In the early 1950s, there had never been a successful human organ transplant. Murray and his associates at what was then Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital developed new surgical techniques after gaining knowledge by transplanting kidneys on dogs. In December 1954, they found the right human patients: a 23-year-old man with end-stage kidney failure and his identical twin.

The sick twin, Richard Herrick had a functioning kidney transplanted from his brother Ronald. After the successful operation, Richard lived another eight years, married a nurse he met at the hospital and had two children. Ronald passed away two years ago.

Born on 1 April 1919 in Milford, Massachusetts, Murray traced his interest in the emerging science of transplants to the three years he spent on the surgical ward of an army hospital in Pennsylvania during World War II.

There, surgeons would often treat severely burned soldiers with skin grafts from cadavers as a temporary measure.

“The slow rejection of the foreign skin grafts fascinated me. How could the host distinguish another person’s skin from his own?” Murray would later write in an autobiographical essay published by the Nobel committee.

He later learned that the chief plastic surgeon, Colonel James Brown, had carried out a skin graft on identical twins in which the recipient’s body had accepted the foreign tissue rather than instinctively attacking it.

“This was the impetus to my study of organ transplantation,” Murray wrote.

The doctor won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990, sharing the honour with E. Donnall Thomas who pioneered bone marrow transplants.

Their discoveries have been used to cure or provide a decent life for tens of thousands of severely ill patients.

Murray later focused on plastic surgery, specifically the repair of facial defects in children. He led Brigham’s plastic surgery department for almost four decades and the division at Children’s Hospital Medical Center from 1972 to 1985.

“My life as a surgeon-scientist, combining humanity and science, has been fantastically rewarding,” Murray wrote in the Nobel autobiography.

In our daily patients we witness human nature in the raw – fear, despair, courage, understanding, hope, resignation, heroism. If alert, we can detect new problems to solve, new paths to investigate.

According to the Boston Globe, Murray is survived by this wife, three sons, three daughters and 18 grandchildren.

-Additional reporting by AP and AFP

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