Nobel laureate Joseph Murray, plastic surgeon and transplant pioneer, dies at 93

PSN staff
11/27/2012 at 11:00AM

Nobel laureate and renowned plastic surgeon Joseph Murray, MD, passed away Monday, Nov. 26, at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, after suffering a stroke at his home on Thanksgiving Day. He was 93.

Dr. Murray is credited for performing the world's first organ transplant in December 1954. The recipient was 23-year-old Richard Herrick, who received a functional kidney from his twin brother, Ronald. Since that time, more than 600,000 people have received life-saving organ transplants as a result of Dr. Murray's groundbreaking work, for which he awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990.

"Kidney transplants seem so routine now," Dr. Murray told The New York Times after he won the Nobel. "But the first one was like Lindbergh's flight across the ocean."

"He brought comfort to thousands of patients and families with his compassion and the exquisite care he provided," wrote Betsy Nabel, MD, president of Brigham and Women's Hospital, in an e-mail sent to the hospital community upon hearing of Dr. Murray's passing. "He selflessly sought to share his knowledge with his colleagues and to teach and mentor younger physicians." Dr. Nabel was among those who honored Dr. Murray as a Special Guest during a Veterans Day celebration at the hospital on Nov. 12.

A 1943 graduate of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Dr. Murray was commissioned by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1944 and served at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pa., treating wounded soldiers - many badly burned - returning from the battlefields of World War II.

One of his first and most memorable patients was a pilot named Charles Woods who survived extensive burns to his face and hands. The skin grafts required to treat his injuries provided Dr. Murray a fascinating view into the budding study of immunology and rejection of transplanted tissue.

After his military discharge in 1947, Dr. Murray completed his surgical residency at Boston's Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (where he would retire from in 1986 as chief of plastic surgery) and then moved to New York for plastic surgery training.

"I consider myself a plastic reconstructive surgeon," Dr. Murray told PSN in 2006. "Transplantation was merely a side issue and it really is a form of reconstruction. I never considered it competitive. They're both the same - taking care of patients."

Dr. Murray's interest in reconstructive surgery was sparked primarily as a means of treating children with deformities, but he also enjoyed doing purely cosmetic surgery.

Dr. Murray's surgical DNA could also be traced to the first partial face transplant, which was performed in 2005 on Isabelle Dinoire in Amiens, France.

"The surgeon who did that face transplant (Jean-Michel "Max" Dubernard, MD) was one of my former research Fellows," Dr. Murray told PSN. "They've done a great job on a partial facial transplant. It's been a great success."

Advances in hand and limb transplantation were also gratifying for the ASPS Life Member.

"The whole field of transplantation continues to expand far beyond the simple replacement of skin or kidney," Dr. Murray told PSN. "It's been a glorious experience to be a part of."

During his remarkable career, however, Dr. Murray also focused on developing treatments for congenital facial deformities in children, and he served as chair of the American Board of Plastic Surgery and president of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons. He was also a professor of surgery at Harvard.

Perhaps more than anything, Dr. Murray simply enjoyed caring for people.

"Each person is intrinsically valuable. Whether you're repairing a small blemish of the cheek or a major facial reconstruction, for the patient, it's 100 percent," Dr. Murray said. "You're putting them back into the mainstream - improving the quality of their life.

"Life goes on, and it's a very rich life, but it's all one theme: taking care of patients," he said.

"Enjoy everything about living," he added. "Even how a spider spins its web."

Dr. Murray is survived by his wife of 67 years, Virginia Murray, six children and 18 grandchildren.

Funeral services for Dr. Murray are listed below:

Friday Nov 30: 4 pm - 8 pm: Doherty Funeral Home, 477 Washington St, Wellesley, Mass.

Saturday Dec 1: 11 Mass at St Paul Church, 502 Washington St, Wellesley, Mass.

Saturday Dec 1: Reception at Wellesley Country Club, 1 pm

Burial at Edgartown Cemetary (date TBD)

Click here to read the June 1991 PRS editorial about Dr. Murray by the journal's late editor-in-chief Robert Goldwyn, MD,

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