Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Heroes: Dr. Joe Murray

While researching my blog post about bone marrow transplant pioneers Dr. Don and Dottie Thomas, I experienced the unexpected; learning about the doctor who pioneered organ transplants, Dr. Joe Murray. He shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with Dr. Thomas and is a hero in his own right. Not only is Dr. Murray a surgeon and a medical scientist, he is also an author. His autobiography, published in 2001, is called Surgery of the Soul: Reflections on a Curious Career.

Dr. Murray's interest in transplantation grew out of his experiences during World War II. He worked as an Army surgeon on the plastic s
urgery service at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, attending to burn victims. He utilized skin grafts as part of patient care, and became fascinated by how the body could tell when the surgeons had to use temporary donor skin grafts. He observed how the body eventually rejected the graft and hypothesized that the time it took for the body to reject the graft had something to do with how genetically dissimilar the patient and donor were. (These were the days before post transplant anti-rejection medications.) His mentor, Colonel James Barrett Brown, performed a skin transplant between twins in 1937 which had not been rejected; Dr. Murray credits this knowledge as the impetus for his research into organ transplantation.

By 1954, Dr. Murray was at Brigham Hospital in Boston and performing the first kidney transplant, giving Richard Herrick, a 23 year old with kidney disease, a kidney from his healthy twin brother Ronald. In an interview in 2001 with the New York Times, Dr. Murray recalls practicing in the lab on dogs and even performing the surgery on cadavers prior to the actual procedure, just to make sure that everything would go as planned. He went on to perform the first allograft in 1959 and the first kidney transplant from an unrelated donor in 1962.

In his autobiography for the website Nobelprize.org, Dr. Murray says:
"My only wish would be to have ten more lives to live on this planet. If that were possible, I'd spend one lifetime each in embryology, genetics, physics, astronomy and geology. The other lifetimes would be as a pianist, backwoodsman, tennis player, or writer for the National Geographic. If anyone has bothered to read this far, you would note that I still have one future lifetime unaccounted for. That is because I'd like to keep open the option for another lifetime as a surgeon-scientist."
According to the U
S Department of Health and Human Services, 456,857 organ transplants have been performed since January 1, 1988. This is what makes Dr. Murray a true health care hero.

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