Honoring a half-century of work by a Harvard physician, the Nobel Assembly yesterday conferred the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Professor of Surgery emeritus Joseph E. Murray for his advances in organ and cell transplantation.
Murray, a 1943 graduate of Harvard Medical School, will share the $695,000 prize with E. Donnell Thomas of the University of Washington in Seattle, who also contributed to the field of organ transplantation with groundbreaking research in bone marrow transplants.
The discoveries of the two doctors--who worked together at Harvard's Peter Brent Brigham hospital in the 1950s--was described by the Nobel Assembly as "crucial for those tens of thousands of severely ill patients who either can be cured or be given a decent life when other treatment methods are without success."
Murray was notified of his Nobel Prize by his daughter, whom he was visiting in California. She awakened him at about 4 a.m. to tell him of his award. In an interview with The Crimson yesterday, Murray said he did not believe the news at first, and then he was surprised and elated.
"After all, it's a great honor," said Murray, 71, who became Harvard's 32nd Nobel Laureate and the 14th in medicine.
Physicians credit Murray with developing the techniques that made kidney transplants possible.
"He sort of began transplantation," said Trevor C. Axford, a surgical resident at the Brigham and Women's Hospital. "All of the advantages of transplantation are reflected by his work."
"Obviously the whole field of transplantation owes him a lot," Axford said.
Murray began his research on organ transplantation during his residency atBrigham Hospital, and on December 23, 1954,performed the first successful transplantation ofa kidney from one identical twin, Ronald Herrick,into his brother Richard Herrick.
"That [success] proved the basis fortransplantation was a solid one," said FriedmanProfessor of Pathology emeritus Gustave J. Dammin,the pathologist who used skin grafts--smallsamples of the twins' skin--to determine that thecompatibility between donor and recipient wasperfect.
Over the years, Murray and his research teamconquered other obstacles in the field oftransplantation. In 1959 Murray performed asuccessful transplant between non-identical twins,and discovered that a low dose of radiationlessened the chance that the foreign organ wouldbe rejected.
The radiation technique had potentially fatalside effects, however, and it was not until 1962,when a drug called azathioprine was discovered tosuppress the immune system and allow the body toreceive a foreign organ, that Murray was able tosuccessfully transplant the kidney of an unrelatedcadaver.
Murray's colleague, George H. Hitchings, Jr.,who discovered the benefits of using azathioprine,won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. By 1964,the success rate in unrelated donors was 75percent.
After his major work with organ transplantationwas completed, Murray concentrated his attentionon his other area of interest--plastic andreconstructive surgery, especially skintransplants and facial repair of congenital birthdefects in children. By 1970, Murray was a fullprofessor at the Medical School and was also thechair of plastic and reconstructive surgery atBrigham and Women's and Children's hospitals.
Murray pioneered a procedure in the UnitedStates which corrected head deformities byresectioning and moving forward the bones of thehead and the face.
"Doctor Murray was quite innovative in doingtransplantive surgery on children," Dammin said.
And Dammin added that not only did Murray dogreat work as a surgeon, but he also performed theimportant task of comforting his patients, beinggentle and encouraging.
"He had a manner of consoling them, of puttingthem at ease," Dammin said.
Murray's colleagues praised his contribution tomedicine yesterday and said the Nobel Prize was anhonor he deserved.
"I am delighted [by Murray's award] for manyreasons," said Med School Dean Daniel C. Tosteson'44. "First, it celebrates a magnificent discoveryof a way to benefit millions of people throughoutthe world suffering from kidney failure. Second,it celebrates a kind of research that is ofenormous importance for the future of medicine.Third, and in many ways most important, is the[fine] character of the recipient."
Toyia R. Battle contributed to the reportingof this article.