In Passing // Bill Coffin
Joseph E. Murray (1919-2012)
Discovery is a painful process, born from often failed and costly experimentation, the doubt of others, and villainization by those who do not share in the vision being sought. This is especially true of medical discoveries, which carry with them a special set of ethical challenges that require the most steady of moral compasses and the courage to follow them even when the rest of the world howls in outrage. Even under the best circumstances, such efforts fail or produce underwhelming results, calling into question the wisdom of the enterprise. But those who prevail deliver to humanity truly transformative discoveries that instantly transcend the personal glory of the original discoverers. Dr. Joseph E. Murray was one such discoverer, whose work in organ transplantation, immunology and reconstructive surgery won him a Nobel Prize and led to surgical techniques that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Murray wrote that he had wanted to be a surgeon as long as he could remember, and in his early school days, he marveled at the periodic table and the details of an orderly universe. He dedicated to studying the natural sciences, and focused on medicine. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross, it was on to Harvard Medical School, though World War II soon interrupted what would have been an orderly career progression.
As a nine-month surgical intern at the Valley Forge General hospital in Pennsylvania, Murray tended to wounded soldiers, but he showed an intense interest in reconstructive surgery. His interest was noted and instead of being shipped off to a battlefield medical center, he was kept stateside for the remainder of the war, where he took an interest in researching skin grafts for burn victims.
That the body rejected foreign skin grafts fascinated Murray, who theorized that the closer the genetic relationship between donor and recipient, the slower the rejection. He experimented with skin grafts between a set of twins, which led to further research into organ transplantation, which by the 1950s, still had never been successfully accomplished.