The First United States Kidney Transplant

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The practice of transplant medicine is a recent addition to the vast list of medical specialties. Most of the advances in renal transplantation have occurred in the last fifty years. Those advances have come about by professionals who dared to push the envelope, who challenged medical ethics and forged new frontiers of technology.

Kidney transplantation began with experiments which implanted various animal kidneys into human subjects, but those early experiments met with no success. In 1933, a human-to-human kidney transplant was undertaken, but unknown to doctors then the kidney was rejected by the recipient, due to incompatible blood types between the donor and the recipient.

The Transplant

By 1950 clinical knowledge had improved, and a physician named R.H. Lawler dared to challenge medicine. Ruth Tucker, a woman with severely diseased kidney from polycystic kidney disease, came to see Dr. Lawler for help. Her mother and her sister had both died from the disease, and it looked as though Ruth was about to succumb to the same fate.

Ruth stayed in the hospital for five weeks, while the search for a suitable donor was conducted. Finally, on June 17, 1950, the operation was conducted at Little Company of Mary Hospital, in Evergreen Park, a Chicago suburb. A month following the transplant, Ruth was able to return home.

Successes and Failures

In 1951, Ruth returned to the hospital because her kidneys were producing less and less urine. Dr. Lawler operated and found the kidney shrunken, a sign of rejection and kidney failure. Ruth, however, went on to live five more years before dying of other causes. The transplanted kidney had worked well enough for Ruth to recover some of her own natural kidney function.

This unique event proved that renal transplants could succeed, and interest in the process was renewed, providing the catalyst which led to modern day renal transplant programs. Many rough spots and failures were to follow, but each was met with the determination that success would be achieved. More was learned about how the immune system functioned and related to the success of transplants. Soon after, immunosuppressant medications were developed, and organ transplantation achieved greater success.