More than half a century after Joseph E. Murray made history by conducting the first successful human organ transplant in 1954, he drove for four hours to attend the funeral of an old patient—the man who had donated his kidney in that original surgery.
When he arrived at the funeral, Murray was welcomed like a member of the donor’s family, according to Stefan G. Tullius, an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School who accompanied his former colleague Murray to the services that day.
Friends and family say that gestures like these were typical of Murray, who cared deeply about his patients long after they left the operation room.
Murray, who won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 and made breakthroughs in transplant surgery over his long career as a Harvard Medical School professor, died on Nov. 26 in Boston at age 93.
“He recognized that surgery was treating a human being,” said his son Richard Murray. “He was helping a life become more fulfilling and worth living.”
Born and raised in Milford, Mass., Murray studied classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., before graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1943.
Following a stint as a doctor in the Army Medical Corps, Murray began working at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, now known as Brigham and Women’s. After experimenting with early transplant operations on dogs, Murray went on to make advancements in human organ transplants, burn procedures, and cranial-facial reconstructive surgeries.
Colleagues remembered Murray for his humanistic approach and positive attitude, even in stressful moments.
“He always looked at things in an infectiously optimistic way, which made it much easier to communicate with him and to approach difficult situations,” Tullius said.
Murray was especially optimistic about the future of medicine, according to Harvard Medical School instructor Edward J. Caterson, who worked with Murray at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“From my perspective, what was most impressive about Joe Murray was that, despite immense intellectual capacity, he still was a humble man who was enthusiastic about progress, about young people entering science and medicine,” Caterson said.
Family members said that Murray exhibited this same positivity outside the operating room.
“We would tease him mercilessly about always seeing the bright side,” chuckled Murray’s son Richard. “Dad would be burning up, and he’d say, ‘At least I’m warm.’”
Richard recalled a moment around the Thanksgiving dinner table just days before his father died, when Murray told his wife Virginia of 67 years, “You get prettier every year.”
Friends and family members said that Murray’s philosophy was informed by his devout Catholic faith, which helped him see the whole patient and not just the organ he was transplanting. In Murray’s view, one could save a life by improving it.