Last year, 60 people made history by participating in the longest chain of organ transplants to date, newspapers reported this week. Coordinated by 17 hospitals in 11 U.S. states, the lifesaving string of operations unfurled in August when a California man gave a kidney to an anonymous recipient. In return, that patient’s niece—a willing donor though not a match for her relative—offered a kidney to another individual on a transplant waiting list. The domino effect continued over four months as 30 Americans received kidneys thanks to donations by friends or family members to compatible strangers. Find out about other significant milestones in the history of organ transplants and how far science has come over the centuries.
Ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese myths feature fanciful accounts of transplants performed by gods and healers, often involving cadavers or animals. While these tales are considered apocryphal, by 800 B.C. Indian doctors had likely begun grafting skin—technically the largest organ—from one part of the body to another to repair wounds and burns.
Italian surgeon Gasparo Tagliacozzi, sometimes known as the father of plastic surgery, reconstructed noses and ears using skin from patients’ arms. He found that skin from a different donor usually caused the procedure to fail, observing the immune response that his successors would come to recognize as transplant rejection.
European doctors attempted to save patients dying of renal failure by transplanting kidneys from various animals, including monkeys, pigs and goats. None of the recipients lived for more than a few days.
Eduard Zirm, an Austrian ophthalmologist, performed the world’s first corneal transplant, restoring the sight of a man who had been blinded in an accident.
Transplant pioneer Alexis Carrell received the Nobel Prize for his work in the field. The French surgeon had developed methods for connecting blood vessels and conducted successful kidney transplants on dogs. He later worked with aviator Charles Lindbergh to invent a device for keeping organs viable outside the body, a precursor to the artificial heart.
Ukrainian doctor Yu Yu Voronoy transplanted the first human kidney, using an organ from a deceased donor. The recipient died shortly thereafter as a result of rejection.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a team of doctors at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital carried out a series of human kidney grafts, some of which functioned for days or even months. In 1954 the surgeons transplanted a kidney from 23-year-old Ronald Herrick into his twin brother Richard; since donor and recipient were genetically identical, the procedure succeeded.
British immunologist Peter Medawar, who had studied immunosuppression’s role in transplant failures, received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of acquired immune tolerance. Soon after, anti-rejection drugs enabled patients to receive organs from non-identical donors.
The first successful lung, pancreas and liver transplants took place. In 1967, the world marveled when South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard replaced the diseased heart of dentist Louis Washkansky with that of a young accident victim. Although immunosuppressive drugs prevented rejection, Washkansky died of pneumonia 18 days later.
As transplants became less risky and more prevalent, the U.S. Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act to monitor ethical issues and address the country’s organ shortage. The law established a centralized registry for organ matching and placement while outlawing the sale of human organs. More than 100,000 people are currently on the national waiting list.
Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital pioneered the “domino chain” method of matching donors and recipients. Willing donors who are genetically incompatible with their chosen recipients are matched with strangers; in return, their loved ones receive organs from other donors in the pool.
Spanish doctors conducted the world’s first full face transplant on a man injured in a shooting accident. A number of partial face transplants had already taken place around the world.