When reporters posed questions to Joseph E. Murray after he received the Nobel Prize for Medicine yesterday, the Harvard professor of surgery emeritus spent much of the time talking about the accomplishments and contributions of his colleagues.
This would come as no surprise to those who know Murray, who say that his excellence as a surgeon is only paralleled by his modesty, kind personality and caring attitude towards his patients and peers.
"[Murray] is a very modest, humble and unselfish man," says W. Hardy Hendren III, chief of surgery at Harvard's Children's Hospital and Gross professor of pediatric surgery. "He is always quick to praise the work of others around him while diverting the limelight away from himself."
H. Thomas Ballantine, Jr., clinical professor of surgery emeritus, says of Murray, "He's an extremely approachable; very kind, modest, wonderful person, he's a good man. Every time I think of him, he is smiling."
Murray's caring attitude led him to become interested in the fields of transplantation and plastic surgery in the first place.
Murray said in an interview last night that this interest--which would later become the focus of his research--began when he served as a Marine Corps major in World War II at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, and saw serious injuries that could not be treated.
"I saw a lot of patients dying of burns, who could have survived if you could transplant skin from one person to another," Murray says.
When Murray returned to Harvard to finish his residency after the war, hewanted to do research in the field of skintransplants. But the major work done at BrighamHospital in Boston was in kidney transplantation.In the late 1940s, the hospital was the first inthe country to host a demonstration of theartificial kidney machine developed during thewar.
As a result, Murray switched his area ofresearch from skin transplants to kidneytransplants, and over the next 20 years, paved theway for the transplantation of all solid organs,such as the kidney, liver, heart, pancreas, lungand intestines.
After several years of animal experimentation,Murray performed the first successful kidneytransplant from one identical twin to another onDecember 23, 1954. He then performed a string ofsuccessful transplantations over the next severalyears, leading up to transplants of kidneys fromunrelated cadavers or living relatives.
After establishing a standard procedure inkidney transplantation, Murray redirected hisattention in 1969 to his original interest--skintransplants and reconstructive surgery.
In particular, Murray did much to help childrenwho had congenital birth defects or head and neckcancers.
And he says that his work in these areas hasbeen rewarding for him, and necessary for him todo something worthwhile with the opportunities hehad.
"I think very much that we have an obligationto repay society, and this is how we do it,"Murray says.
Murray was born in April, 1919, in Milford,Mass., and graduated from the College of the HolyCross in Worcester in 1940 before attendingHarvard Medical School. In his long career inmedicine, he has served as the president of theAmerican Association of Plastic Surgeons andregent of the American College of Surgeons.
Murray set up the International KidneyTransplant Registry in 1963, an organization thatfacilitated communication about organtransplantation between surgeons worldwide.
And in 1966, Murray published the first U.S.account of a "mid-face advancement," a surgicalprocedure which allowed the skull of acongenitally deformed child to be cut and movedinto its proper position.
While history may remember Murray solely forhis advances in surgical transplants andreconstruction, Murray's colleagues will alsoremember his outstanding character.
"If I were to characterize Dr. Murray, I wouldsay he is a man of great vision, that he is adedicated scientist, he is a brilliant teacher, henever gives up and he is a very modest, humble andunselfish man," says Hendren.
Toyia R. Battle contributed to the reportingof this story.