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Transplant Pioneers Recall Medical Milestone

In July 2004, transplant pioneer Dr. Joseph Murray (left), 85, was reunited with his first organ donor, Ronald Herrick, 73, at the U.S. Transplant Games in Minneapolis. Richard Herrick died eight years after his kidney transplant.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR /
In July 2004, transplant pioneer Dr. Joseph Murray (left), 85, was reunited with his first organ donor, Ronald Herrick, 73, at the U.S. Transplant Games in Minneapolis. Richard Herrick died eight years after his kidney transplant.

On Dec. 23, 1954, doctors in Boston gave a kidney to a seriously ill, 23-year-old man in the first successful long-term transplant of a human organ. Since then, transplants have saved more than 400,000 lives. But as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, that's something transplant pioneer Dr. Joseph Murray never imagined.

"We didn't think we made history," Murray says of that first transplant. "We didn't even think of history. We thought we were going to save a patient."

Murray, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work, thought transplants would be able to help just a tiny number of people. "It seemed almost impossible that you would have twins, one dying of kidney disease and another healthy," Murray says.

Indeed, Murray's first patient and donor were identical twins. They had to be -- they needed the same genetic make up, or else the recipient's immune system would reject the donated organ. It would be years before doctors figured out ways to trick the immune system.

Ronald Herrick was a healthy 23-year-old who had just been discharged from the Army. His twin brother Richard had just gotten out of the Coast Guard -- and was in a hospital, dying of kidney disease.

Ronald Herrick says going through with the then-untried medical procedure was a difficult decision, but when Richard tried to call off the operation the night before surgery, Ronald stood firm.

"I sent him back a message, 'We're going to do it'," Ronald Herrick recalls. "And that was the end of that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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