I never really wanted to go to medical school; my father talked me into it. I graduated but never practiced medicine. My work using cultured cells to CURE BURN PATIENTS was first carried out while I was at MIT. It started with a mouse teratoma, a kind of tumor that gives rise to all different cell types. I learned how to cultivate skin cells, which had never been possible before. Finally, I figured out a way of making a graft. It came by progression. You start at one place, see something happening, and take the next step.
At first I tried it on animals; it attached well. With that assurance, we did a graft on a man with burns on his arm. Next came two boys from Wyoming who were burned over 97 percent of their bodies. The man in charge of the burn unit said there was nothing I could do, but if I wanted to try, he would accept [the grafts]. So, of course, I had to do it. BOTH RECOVERED.
If I had not gone to medical school, I might not have had THE COURAGE TO TAKE THIS THING ON — it gave me more confidence I could treat humans. I still get e-mail letters from people all over the world who are burned. There was a lady from the South, a secretary, who was badly burned when a private airplane crashed right outside her office. She was treated successfully, and years later, there was a meeting arranged where she expressed her gratitude [to me]. It was a touching moment. GENZYME HAS TAKEN OVER and will ship these cultures anywhere; they have done more than 1,000 cases to date.
In 2010, I won the Warren Alpert Foundation prize [a $200,000 award], and now the March of Dimes’ [$250,000]. I’m 86 — I plan to spend it as quickly as possible.— As told to Melissa SchorrInterview has been edited and condensed.