The transplant pioneer who loathed surgery
Thomas Starzl 1926–2017
To his many admirers, Thomas Starzl was known as the “father of transplantation.” The surgeon and researcher conducted the world’s first successful human liver transplant in 1967 and the first heart-liver transplant in 1984, and helped develop a cocktail of immunosuppressive drugs to prevent organ rejection. Despite his talent with a scalpel, Starzl hated performing surgery. Describing it as a “test of endurance” and “a curious exercise in brutality,” he said he always entered the operating room “sick with apprehension” over possible mishaps. “I had an intense fear,” he said, “of failing the patients who had placed their health or life in my hands.”
Born in Le Mars, Iowa, Starzl was “the second son of Czechoslovakian and Irish immigrants,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). His mother, a former surgical nurse, helped persuade him to go into medicine; after graduating from Northwestern University’s medical school, he took a job at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. Intrigued by transplantation, Starzl “began experimenting on dogs in an empty garage next to the hospital.” He developed a new method of removing the liver and experimented with inject-ing cold liquids into the transplant organ’s blood vessels, helping to preserve it after removal from the body. Starzl’s first four attempts at a human liver transplant, at the University of Colorado in Denver in 1963, failed, said The New York Times. But following a threeyear self-imposed moratorium, “Starzl and his colleagues tried again.” The patient, a 19-monthold girl with a cancerous liver, survived. After that success, Starzl began working with cyclosporine, a powerful new immunosuppressant. He realized he could reduce the drug’s toxic effect on the kidneys by using it in combination with steroids— a breakthrough that allowed liver transplants to become mainstream surgical procedures.
“Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh medical school in 1981 as professor of surgery,” said The Washington Post. He stayed there for the rest of his career, focusing on multi-organ transplants, animal-to-human operations, and the possibility of weaning patients off immunosuppressive drugs. He retired in 1991, after being “greatly affected” by the death of one of his patients. “It is true that transplant surgeons saved patients,” he said. “But the patients rescued us in turn and gave meaning to what we did, or tried to.”