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Perspective

The miracle of medicine

On the anniversary of a historic transplant surgery, a lesson on bridging the divide between science and religion.

“The First Successful Kidney Transplantation,” by Joel Babb

Photograph of Babb painting from The Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

“The First Successful Kidney Transplantation,” by Joel Babb

EVOLUTION, BIRTH CONTROL, EMBRYONIC STEM-CELL RESEARCH, END OF LIFE: From Darwin’s time to our own, the ethical and religious questions raised by science have occupied newspaper headlines, polarized politics, and ignited family disputes. Today, American culture is as divisive as ever, and many of us have come to consider the scientific and spiritual spheres irreconcilable. But 58 years ago, a medical pioneer facing similar challenges found a way to create harmony from dissonance.

 On December 23, 1954, a plastic surgeon named Joseph E. Murray stepped into Operating Room 2 at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s). He was about to attempt an organ transplant, a surgery never before successful in humans.

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 As a young physician serving in World War II, Murray had devoted himself to helping burned soldiers, using skin grafts to save lives. “I was interested in the biology of transplants and why it is that a piece of skin grafted from one’s own self will live, but from another [person] won’t,” he told me years ago. He became riveted on a case in which a skin graft between identical twins wasn’t rejected. Murray returned to the Brigham eager to understand why.

In 1954, a patient experiencing final-stage renal failure — 23-year-old Richard Herrick — was referred to the hospital. Richard had a healthy identical twin, Ronald, who was willing to give his brother one of his kidneys. Murray wanted to do the surgery.

 But the proposal’s momentum soon struck the stone wall of skepticism. Many felt that subjecting Ronald, a healthy person, to a major operation not for his benefit was a breach of the Hippocratic Oath’s promise to do no harm. There were public outcries that the transplant team would be “playing God.” People compared Murray to Dr. Frankenstein.

 Yet Murray, a devout Christian, believed he was simply working with the tools God had given him, following a human inclination to be curious and persistent. Since he also felt a deep responsibility to address society’s concerns, he immersed himself in dialogue with Boston’s religious leaders. “We had conferences in the hospital,” he said. “We had the cardinal; we had a leader of the Jewish faith. We wanted to get the consensus.” Murray’s inclusive approach eventually won a special decree allowing the surgery from the state’s highest court.

 By then, Richard Herrick was near death. Murray hurried through a trial run on a cadaver. The night before the actual surgery, he knelt with members of his family in prayer, perhaps considering it auspicious that the team would attempt to renew life during Christmas week.

On December 23, the simultaneous surgeries on the brothers commenced in adjoining operating rooms. Several hours later, Ronald’s kidney — now in Richard — began to grow pink, a sure sign of success.

In the following decades, Murray, who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990, often spoke of the acrimony he encountered at the cutting edge of science. “We have to avoid the arrogance of persons on either side of the science-religion divide who feel that they have all the answers,” he once said. In Murray’s thinking, the insights gleaned from sacred and scientific pursuits dovetailed seamlessly. “One truth is revealed truth, the other is scientific truth,” he said. “The more we learn about creation — the way it emerged — it just adds to the glory of God.”  

Murray died at age 93 shortly after Thanksgiving in the same hospital where he had made history. In the weeks since, I’ve thought about his legacy, and how it extends even beyond the enormous gift he bestowed on hundreds of thousands of organ recipients. Murray also showed that with the proper mix of respect and resolve, it is possible for two seemingly intractable forces to come together and create miracles. In this season of good will, as we still clash over our differences, his is a fine example to embrace.

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BY THE NUMBERS

600,000+

Estimated number of people worldwide who have received successful organ transplants since 1954.

Diane Speare Triant is a writer in Wellesley Hills. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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