Twentieth in our series to appear on the first Friday of each month: Boston Firsts Fridays. #BostonFirsts
First Realty Management Corp. was founded in Boston over 50 years ago. We are proud to call this wonderful city our home, and call focus to some of the events & innovations that happened FIRST in Boston.
BF#20 First Successful Human Organ Transplant (1954)
They do say it is the season of miracles…
It certainly was for Massachusetts native Richard Herrick, whose life was saved on December 23, 1954 when he became the first human recipient of an organ transplant from another living person. Herrick was only 23 years old when he was discharged from the Coast Guard, but he was suffering from an inflammation of the kidneys that was not just potentially fatal – in 1954 it was in all probability a terminal diagnosis.
Kidney transplantation had been attempted earlier in the 20th century, first in animals and then from animal to human. The preceding decade saw a few unsuccessful transplants of kidneys from deceased human donors. Mostly these failed because the recipient’s body would reject the transplanted organ for immunological reasons – their body would attempt to fight off a “foreign” element like non-similar tissue. But Herrick had an identical twin…
This was serendipitous, as doctors and scientists at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in nearby Boston were trying to solve this issue of rejected transplants and had been looking for twins with which they hoped for more success. Many of these medical professionals had been working on an artificial kidney (essentially the procedure of dialysis). But this was an opportunity they had waited for.
Aside from the practical and medical challenges involved, however, there were new and significant ethical considerations. This would be the first time in history that a healthy person, however willingly, would be subjected to a medical procedure entirely for the benefit of another. That is, the doctors would be actually harming or weakening a healthy person in order to cure another.
Ronald Herrick was determined to help his brother, however, and so after what one imagines was a great deal of discussion with clergy, doctors and family, plans were made for Ronald to donate one of his kidneys to his twin brother, Richard.
Doctor J. Hartwell Harrison was responsible for safely removing the functioning kidney from the donor without harming Ronald. With this task successfully completed, Milford, MA native Joseph E. Murray, with the assistance of Nephrologist John P. Merrill performed the transplanting of the kidney into the recipient, completing what would become known as the first successful human organ transplant in medical history. Not only had they succeeded in keeping the donor healthy, they had prolonged the life of the recipient. Richard, in spite of the healthy new organ would eventually succumb to his chronic kidney disease 8 years later – but not before marrying one of his nurses and having 2 kids! (Ronald, incidentally, lived a full life before passing in 2010, aged 79.)
Most importantly, their work ushered in a whole new era of scientific possibility in the field of medicine. Tens of thousands of organ transplants have been successfully performed in the years since this historic event, saving countless lives. Dr. Murray would be recognized with the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work.
It has been almost exactly 60 years since this milestone was reached at what is today the Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital (then and now a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School) and the reverberations of the work of these doctors is still saving lives today. And isn’t that a kind of miracle?
While the story about the surgery was supposed to be kept secret prior to the procedure, a reporter got hold of the story when Dr. Murray, seeking confirmation that the Herricks were indeed identical twins, had the brothers brought to a Boston Police station to be fingerprinted.
Fun fact #2:
The amazing work of the doctors at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital may not have been possible without another Boston First: First Public Demonstration of Ether as Surgical Anesthetic / introduction of words “anesthesia” & “anesthetic”. But that’s another story…