Spare a thought today for Ronald Lee Herrick who died on Monday at age 79. In 1954, his identical twin brother, Richard, had end-stage kidney disease with little prospect of long-term survival. Dr Joseph Murray, a pioneering surgeon from the Brigham Hospital in Boston, performed the first successful renal transplant from Ronald to his brother thus saving his life and proving that transplantation was a viable treatment for chronic renal disease.
It’s hard to imagine these days how revolutionary this was. In order to ensure that the kidney would not be rejected, the doctors first had to prove that they were actually identical twins. This was done using the science of fingerprinting and by performing skin grafts to demonstrate that they would accept the graft. Then, as now, there were concerns about the long-term effects on the donor and no-one was certain that the kidney would function after transplantation.
The recipient, Richard, went on to marry one of the nurses who took care of him in the hospital and fathered two girls before he died 8 years later. Ronald worked as a teacher and a farmer and passed away this week. Dr Murray received the Nobel Prize for his work and still lives in Massachusetts at the age of 91.
Here is a 2004 NPR report on the first transplant where they interviewed Dr Murray and Mr Herrick.