Nobel Winner Murray Recalls Med School
A book of great personalities in medicine, whose first entry, Aristotle, was deemed the father of modern medicine, concludes with Dr. Joseph F. Murrary.
Murray, who this week celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from the Medical School in 1943, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his early work on kidney transplants, But his desire to don scrubs and a scalped began much earlier.
"When anyone asked me what I wanted to do when I was little, I said I wanted to be a surgeon," says Murray. "It's the most exciting field in the world."
Murray entered the Medical School in 1940 after graduating from Holy Cross as a joint major in Latin, Greek, philosophy and English.
He remembers his years on Longwood Avenue fondly. "My four years at Harvard Medical School were all that I dreamed they would be," he wrote in 1990. And he adds today, "It was just absolutely heaven."
Murray especially appreciated the variety of interests, both in medicine and life, represented by his Medical School peers.
It was his military experience after medical school which sparked Murray's interest in tissue and organ transplantation. Stationed at the Valley Forge, N.Y., General Hospital in 1944, Murray treated soldiers suffering from severe burns and became fascinated with the body's rejection of foreign skin.
Upon his discharge in 1947, Murray joined an experimental transplant group at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, where he had served during his residency. In 1954, he performed the first human kidney transplant between a pair of identical twins.
"Kidney transplants seem so routine today, but the first one was like Lindbergh's flight across the ocean," Murray wrote in 1990.
In the following years, Murray fine-tuned the transplant procedure, examining the various methods of acquisition of organs and the prevention of an immunologic response against the donated organ. In particular, he studied drug and X-ray treatments as methods of modifying the body's response to foreign tissue.
In 1959, Murray performed the first kidney transplant on non-identical twins, and over the following 22 years, he conducted successful pancreas, liver, heart, lung and heart-and-lung transplants.
Brigham & Women's Hospital surgeon Dr. Nicholas L. Tilney, who worked with Murray in the 1960's and is currently a professor of surgery at the Medical School, says Murray was one of his "great role models."
"Dr. Murray was really a pillar of strength and got the whole thing going," he says.
Murray's character, particularly with patients, was warm, Tilney says, and he added that Murray was always a gentleman.
Today, Murray looks back on the motives which steered him towards the medical sub-field of transplantation. "When I started people said it was a dream...impossible," he says.
Murray was told that attempting to transplant organs would waste his time and ruin his reputation. But he persevered, driven by his desire to serve. "Any chance of helping was worth working for," he says.
He cites the most significant moments of his career not as the celebrated transplant in 1954 or his being awarded the Nobel Prize, but instead treating children with congenital facial deformities and serving in the U.S. Army.
He lauds the courage displayed by the soldiers in World War II. "It was a tremendous privilege to take care of them," he says.
Murray says that the single most important characteristic of a doctor, that which has enabled him to succeed in the face of frustration and failure, is caring about people.
"I think you've got to have a love of patients, a love of people," he says. "The greatest satisfaction I've gotten is getting people well."
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1990, Murray said that his only wish would be to have ten more lives to live. Each life, he explained, would be spent in pursuit of a different career, such as genetics or music or writing.
Upon completion of his list, one life remained free. "That is because," he said, "I'd like to keep open the option for another lifetime as a surgeon-scientist."