Ronald Lee Herrick, who became a medical pioneer in 1954 when he donated a kidney to his twin brother in what is considered the world’s first successful organ transplant, has died at the age of 79.
The native of Rutland, Mass., died in Augusta, Maine, on Monday, while recovering from heart surgery. A retired math teacher in Northborough before moving to Maine, he was quiet about his role in the groundbreaking operation at the former Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. His gift created a new field of medicine, as this Globe story says.
"I didn't think too much about it," Herrick said during an interview when the 50th anniversary of the operation was celebrated in 2004. "We had all kinds of meetings beforehand. I agreed, and there was no real problem."
When the identical twins were 23 years old, Ronald’s brother Richard was dying of chronic kidney inflammation.
Organ transplants had been attempted before, but they had failed. Kidney specialists at the Brigham believed taking a kidney from an identical twin would avoid the recently recognized problem of rejection, in which the recipient's immune system attacks the transplanted organ as foreign.
The doctors -- including Dr. Joseph E. Murray, who later won the Nobel Prize in medicine -- were right. The operation was a success and Richard, a Coast Guard veteran who had been failing while on an early form of dialysis, recovered, married his recovery room nurse, and became the father of two children. He died of a heart attack eight years later.
"Here was a person who was near death and was able to return to normal life," Dr. Michael J. Zinner, chief of surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital, the successor to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, said in 2004. "This ushered in a new era, when surgery would no longer simply be used to treat acute illnesses like appendicitis or a traffic accident (injury) but now could be used to treat a chronic illness and make patients better."
If Ronald had paid attention to a note from Richard on Dec. 22, 1954, the night before the groundbreaking surgery, the historic operation might have never happened. Richard sent a message down to his brother's hospital room on the floor below. "You get out and go home," the letter said. "I'm here and I'm going to stay here," Ronald wrote back.
At 8 o'clock the next morning Murray, Dr. Hartwell J. Harrison, and Dr. John P. Merrill began a five-hour operation that gave Richard Herrick new life.
Ronald Herrick was low-key about his contribution, according to his wife, Cynthia. She said in 2004 it took some doing to get him to wear a T-shirt saying "The Original Organ Donor" at the Transplant Games in Minneapolis, an athletic event featuring transplant recipients.
This item is based in part on a report in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette written by blogger Elizabeth Cooney when she was a health reporter there.
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