Dr. Joseph Murray died this yesterday at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. For those of you who don’t know who he is, he performed the first kidney transplant in 1954. He was also a Plastic Surgeon. Why would a plastic surgeon perform a kidney transplant? Excellent question- the way the story has been told to me, is that Dr. Murray had the technical expertise and surgical skills necessary to perform such a technically demanding operation. When I did my Transplant Surgery rotation, I always listened with pride when my attending surgeons recounted the story of the first kidney transplant (done on identical twins), and then asked the other residents, most of them training in general surgery, if they knew what type of surgeon Dr. Murray was.
The truth is, Plastic Surgeons have always been pioneers. The rabbit experiments of Dr. Harry Bunke, another Plastic Surgeon, helped create the field of microsurgery. It is this ability to repair tiny nerves and blood vessels that now allows us to reattach a severed finger, or perform a face transplant. Of course, Dr. Bunke’s son Greg had many one-eared pet rabbits while his father was still learning!
Plastic surgeons are also the “surgeon’s surgeon”. When other physicians have wounds they can’t close, they call us. And much of this knowledge came from surgeons who treated soldiers injured in World Wars I and II (Dr. Murray himself was an Army doctor). Being a Plastic Surgeon is a huge honor, and a big responsibility. So when you’re watching Dr. Paul Nassif on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (who was originally trained as an Otolaryngologist, by the way), or reading another article about celebrity cosmetic surgery, remember that most Plastic Surgeons still perform more reconstructive surgery than cosmetic. And think of the more than 600,000 individuals who have received an organ transplant since that first kidney transplant back in 1954.