When we celebrate medical pioneers, we usually focus on the revolutionary breakthroughs that they achieve. It’s easy to forget that they’re not just innovative researchers but physicians as well, and that their calling isn’t just to win Nobel Prizes but also to help the flesh-and-blood human beings on their operating tables.
Dr. Joseph E. Murray, a surgeon who performed the first successful organ transplant in 1954 and shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Dr. E. Donnall Thomas for discoveries that enabled transplantation to become a lifesaving medical treatment, always had his patients in mind. In fact, his connection with them was the motivation that drove him to innovate. Murray, who died on Nov. 26 at age 93 in Boston, had this to say in his official Nobel biographical sketch: “ 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.”
In particular, three of Murray’s patients illustrate the bond that he felt with those he treated.
- Charles Woods. Before Murray became a transplant surgeon, he served as a junior member of a medical team at a Pennsylvania hospital that treated Woods, a U.S. Army flier who suffered gruesome injuries to his face and hands in a 1944 plane crash. “He had no nose, eyelids, or ears, and his mouth — if you could call it that — was a raw opening,” Murray recalled in a 2004 memoir. Woods endured numerous skin grafts and operations, and Murray was moved by the patient’s religious faith and determination to live. Even after Woods returned to his native Alabama and started a new life as a businessman, the two kept in touch, and Murray continued to treat him for his injuries, until Woods died in 2004. “Caring for Charles Woods instilled in me a fascination for reconstructive surgery,” Murray wrote.
- Richard Herrick. In 1954, Herrick, who was dying of kidney disease, was admitted to the Boston hospital where Murray worked and referred to him as a possible candidate for a kidney transplant — a procedure that Murray had been investigating with colleagues. Herrick’s identical twin, Ronald, was willing to give him a kidney, and the brothers wanted Murray to give it a try. Murray agonized about the risks of taking a kidney from a healthy person for the benefit of a sick one, but he agreed. On the day before Christmas that year, the gaunt, pale patient — so drowning in toxins at that point that he had become disoriented and combative — was wheeled into the operating room. As Murray recalled in a 2011 essay: “As we removed the clamps on the vessels and Richard’s blood began to flow into his new organ, the operating room fell silent. We watched — some with fingers crossed, some saying silent prayers — as the transplanted kidney gradually turned pink and plumped up, engorged by Richard’s blood. Then urine began flowing briskly. There were grins all around.” Herrick not only survived the operation but lived for another eight years, during which he married one of his nurses. His brother, the donor, also survived, living to age 79.
- Raymond Francis McMillan. This patient was born with heart defects and facial deformities so severe that, as a child, his parents abandoned him because they couldn’t deal with his condition. In 1964, Murray began to treat McMillan, performing a series of operations that allowed him to swallow normally and smile for the first time. Though he never had a normal appearance, McMillan was able to function well enough that he earned a high school diploma and took a job working in a medical laboratory. The surgery allowed “his inner self to grow and glow,” Murray wrote. According to this Los Angeles Times article, helping patients such as McMillan enjoy better lives was so gratifying to Murray that after he retired from performing transplant surgery in 1971 he went back to his first love of performing reconstructive surgery. As one of his colleagues noted, “Joe’s the only guy who ever won a Nobel Prize for pursuing a hobby.”