PORTLAND, Maine — Ronald Lee Herrick, who donated a kidney to his dying twin brother 56 years ago in what is recognized as the world's first successful organ transplant, has died of complications after heart surgery. He was 79.
Mr. Herrick died Monday (Dec. 27, 2010) at the Augusta Rehabilitation Center in Augusta, said his wife, Cynthia. He had been in deteriorating health since his October surgery, she said.
He gave a kidney to his twin brother, Richard, at what is now Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The 51/2-hour operation on Dec. 23, 1954, kept Mr. Herrick's brother alive for eight years and was the first successful organ transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Lead surgeon Joseph Murray went on to win a Nobel Prize.
The operation proved that transplants were possible and led to thousands of other successful kidney transplants and ultimately the transplant of other organs. Doctors had tried a handful of transplants worldwide without success up to that point, said Murray, who went on to perform 18 more transplants between identical twins.
"This operation rejuvenated the whole field of transplantation," Murray, 91, told the Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Wellesley, Mass.
Mr. Herrick was raised on a family farm in Rutland, Mass., where he graduated from high school. He later served in the U.S. Army.
At 23, Mr. Herrick was glad to give up a kidney if it would help his brother, who was dying from chronic nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys.
Before the operation, many people opposed the idea of transplanting a body organ, equating it with desecration of a body. Others felt it was unethical to operate on healthy humans, and respected editors of medical journals wrote that it was contrary to the Hippocratic oath's vow to never do harm to anyone, Murray said.
But Mr. Herrick never wavered and the operation went on as planned with no complications.
He later taught math for 37 years, in Massachusetts and Maine, where he and his wife moved in 1968.