Modern Medicine

When did the first organ transplant take place?
Answered by Discovery Fit & Health
  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. The first successful organ transplant took place in 1954, when 23-year-old Ronald Herrick gave his identical twin brother, Richard, a kidney. Dr. Joseph Murray, who would later win a Nobel prize for his work, performed the surgery. Not only did it make for a neat story that the brothers were twins, but it was also crucial that that be the case. In 1954, science hadn't yet figured out how to make the immune system more accepting of organs that did not share the same genetic makeup between donor and recipient [source: NPR].

    That first organ transplant was a long time coming. Doctors had performed blood transfusions for years, and had performed the first corneal transplant in 1905, but they were unable to successfully transplant an organ for decades thereafter. ("Success" in transplantation is defined as one year of survival with the new organ. Richard Herrick lived for eight more years with his brother's donated kidney before his kidney disease destroyed the replacement.)

    Of course, today the big kahuna in organ transplantation, the one that continues to spark the imagination, is the heart transplant. The first of those occurred on December 3rd in 1967, when Christiaan Barnard, a surgeon from South Africa, led a team of 30 in the transplanting of a 25-year-old woman's heart into a 53-year-old grocer named Louis Washkansky, who had heart disease and diabetes. The procedure was deemed a success, in that the heart was not immediately rejected, instead lasting 18 days before Washkansky died when his immune system crashed (likely due to the immune suppression drugs he was being given) [source: Long].

    The next transplant kahuna -- and which would easily supplant the heart in that erstwhile category -- would have to be a brain transplant. That will likely be a long time in coming, too, sadly. For now, some think the next gee-whiz thing will be to grow organs for use in transplant surgeries. Because stem cells are cells that can develop into other cellular types within the body --  they can create bone, cartilage and various organs -- some scientists believe they may one day help battle against a variety of diseases, including being used to grow organs for transplants. These concepts, and the use of stem cells, are central to what's known as regenerative medicine.

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