Remembering Dr. Joseph Murray, a “giant” in the field of transplantation

Soon after surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital listed their first patient in an organ donation database as in need of a face transplant, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac visited Dr. Joseph E. Murray at his home in Wellesley.

Pomahac, who was preparing to lead a team in the hospital’s first partial face transplant and would go on to do the first full face transplant performed in the United States, was anxious. Had he considered every variable? Had they done enough to ensure the surgery would go well?

Pomahac knew Murray would understand. In 1954 in an operating room at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Murray had performed the first successful organ transplant, transferring a kidney between identical twins. He received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in transplantation, a field he helped to define.

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Murray, who died Monday after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke at home on Thanksgiving, told Pomahac then that he was well prepared. Not every doubt could be settled, he had said. Pomahac should push forward.

“It was very reassuring that even he had his doubts before he did the kidney,” Pomahac said in an interview Tuesday. “It was very comforting to hear that from such a giant, like he was.”

Murray led the Division of Plastic Surgery for nearly four decades at the Brigham and for years at Boston Children’s Hospital. Long after his retirement, he remained a mentor to physicians in the field.

History was important to Murray, said Dr. Stefan Tullius, chief of transplant surgery at the Brigham. Tullius two years ago accompanied Murray and his wife to the funeral of Ronald Herrick, the man who donated a kidney to his brother, Richard, in that first transplant in 1954.

Richard Herrick had married and had children with his post-operative nurse. He died eight years after the surgery.

“It was very moving for me to see there were all those grandchildren running around who looked like the Herrick twins,” Tullius said.

Murray in 2011 joined the hospital in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the operation he performed on the young Nightingale twins, who were then the longest surviving kidney recipient and donor. And several years ago, the hospital began a Joseph E. Murray visiting professorship in transplant surgery, which included a talk by the honoree. Murray relished those lectures, Tullius said.

“He was fascinated to see how this field moved ahead, and he was looking forward to see how it is going to continue to progress,” Tullius said. “It fascinated him. He continued to read scientific journals. He continuously advised and was very open to any new development.”

Murray defended French doctors who were criticized by others in the field after performing the world’s first face transplant in 2005, Pomahac said. And he encouraged leaders at the Brigham to pursue a face transplant program when its development was still uncertain.

“Whenever we had questions about the big picture of transplants—where does face transplant belong, what were his opinions—he always had a very open-minded approach,” Pomahac said. “I have a sense that we have really finished an era.”

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