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Dr. Joseph E. Murray 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine Announcement

Dr. Joseph E. Murray at the announcement of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Joseph E. Murray is the only Plastic Surgeon to ever win a Nobel Prize. He and E. Donnall Thomas shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning organ and cell transplantation in the treatment of human disease. Dr. Murray was the first surgeon to successfully transplant a kidney, while Dr. Thomas performed the first successful bone marrow transplantation.

Kidney Transplantation

Our immune systems are tasked with protecting our bodies, or more specifically, our cells. It recognizes our cells and rejects all foreign cells. For this reason, transferring organs from one individual to another was long thought impossible. However, in 1954 Joseph Murray avoided rejection using radiotherapy and immunosuppressants, successfully transplanting a kidney between identical twins. Eventually, this led to our ability to transplant other organs, too.

Immune Rejection

Dr. Murray was first introduced to immune rejection at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, while caring for burn patients. World War II was raging on and the plastic surgery wards were overflowing with casualties. Some were so extensively burned that donor sites were not available. As a life-saving measure for these patients, skin grafts were taken from other persons and used as a temporary surface cover. He described his experience with Colonel James Barrett Brown, the Chief of Plastic Surgery in his Noble acceptance speech:

Transplant Surgery

As a result of his work, Dr. Murray became the First Transplant Surgeon. The first operation was summarized by Siang Yong Tan, MD, JD and Jason Merchant, MD in the Singapore Medical Journal.

Dr. Murray and the Herrick Twins

Drs. Murray, Merrill and Harrison with the Herrick Twins, Ronald and Richard.

Dr Murray First Kidney Transplant Surgery

This photograph was taken during the first successful kidney transplantation by Dr. Joseph E. Murray in 1954.

The 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine

Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.

Dr. Joseph E. Murray receiving the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Dr. Joseph E. Murray receiving the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Dr. Joseph E. Murray’s contribution has saved many lives. In the US alone, more than 42,800 organ transplants were performed in 2022, and total kidney transplants exceeded 25,000. Dr. Murray would be proud. Despite this trend, the number of organ donors has decreased for the twelfth year in a row. If you want to be a donor in California it is as simple as checking a box on your driver’s license renewal.

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