Image: Richard and Ronald Herrick
AP
Ronald Herrick, right, donated his kidney to his twin brother, Richard in 1954. The transplant between the brothers, pictured in 1955, is considered the first successful one in the U.S.
updated 12/29/2010 2:11:32 PM ET 2010-12-29T19:11:32

Ronald Lee Herrick, who donated a kidney to his dying twin brother 56 years ago in what's recognized as the world's first successful organ transplant, has died of complications following heart surgery. He was 79.

Herrick died Monday at the Augusta Rehabilitation Center in Augusta, said his wife, Cynthia. He had been in deteriorating health since his October surgery, she said.

Herrick gave a kidney to his twin brother, Richard, at what is now Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The 5 1/2-hour operation on Dec. 23, 1954, kept Herrick's brother alive for eight years and was the first successful organ transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Lead surgeon Dr. 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 another 18 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. "There were other people studying transplants in four or five different countries, but the fact that it worked so well with the identical twins was a tremendous stimulus."

Herrick was raised on a family farm in Rutland, Massachusetts, where he graduated high school. He later served in the U.S. Army.

At 23, 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. Murray thought the odds of a transplanted organ being accepted would be enhanced since they were identical twins.

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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 Herrick never wavered and the operation went on as planned with no complications. Richard Herrick met his future wife, Clare, in the recovery room, where she was a nursing supervisor.

"He was the only one in the world who could save his brother's life, so he was going to do it," said Cynthia Herrick. "There was no question about it."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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