Fifty years ago, Ronald Herrick wasn’t thinking about making medical history that would one day lead to saving countless lives. He just wanted to save one life — his brother’s.
He said it took him no time at all to agree to donate a kidney to his dying twin, Richard. But that 5½-hour operation on Dec. 23, 1954, would not only keep Richard alive for eight more years, it would lead to thousands of kidney transplants and ultimately the transplant of other organs from the heart to the liver. Herrick’s doctor would win a Nobel Prize.
“It was a start but they’ve done an awful lot of transplants since then,” said Herrick, a soft-spoken man who accepts his place in the annals of medical breakthroughs but plays down his place in history.
More than 400,000 transplants have been performed in the United States since the first successful one 50 years ago at what’s now known as Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. More than 25,000 occur each year in the United States.
Rejection of organ was biggest challenge
Back in 1954, though, the surgery had not been done successfully and doctors were struggling to find a way to stop rejection of the transplanted organ that had claimed the lives of every other transplant recipient.
As the story goes, Ron Herrick told a doctor at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital he would gladly give up a kidney if it would help his brother, who was dying from chronic nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys.
The doctor told him it wasn’t possible, but then he had an idea: Since the Herricks were identical twins, the likelihood of the organ being rejected would be reduced. Maybe it was possible after all.
Richard Herrick was transferred to what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where extensive work on transplants was under way.
'The perfect human setup'
Dr. Joseph Murray, the lead surgeon who won the Nobel Prize in 1990, said he had prepared for two years for the operation, discovering that a transplanted kidney, in the absence of immune problems, can function.
“And then on our doorstep, we happened to have had identical twins,” he told the New York Organ Donor Network, which coordinates organ and tissue donations in New York area. “One was dying of kidney disease, the other one was healthy. It was the perfect human setup for our laboratory model.”
Before the surgery, the team made sure to do its homework. Murray even went so far as to have both brothers fingerprinted by the Boston Police Department to ensure that they were identical, not fraternal, twins.
Murray said there were more than medical issues to deal with. Back then, some had equated transplant attempts with desecration of the body, and religious leaders were kept abreast of developments, he said.
While most felt it was ethically acceptable to donate an organ, others “felt that we were playing God and that we shouldn’t be doing all of these, quote, experiments on human beings,” he told The Associated Press.
“We wanted everybody to know we were not doing anything frivolous or thoughtless,” said Murray, who is 85 and is the last surviving member of the surgery team. “In other words, we didn’t want to go out into the ballpark and try to hit a home run without doing any training.”
Days before Christmas
It was days before Christmas. “White Christmas” starring Bing Crosby was playing at the movie theaters. Tunes like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Haley and The Comets and “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes played on the radio.
And in the hospital, two brothers from Massachusetts soon became household names as news reporters learned of the fingerprints at the police station, leading to sensational headlines about the upcoming surgery.
Ron Herrick, now 73, said there was no deep anxiety on his part.
“We felt very strongly that it would work. Of course, it hadn’t been done before. But they knew their research,” he said.
Murray is a deeply spiritual man. His wife and children knelt in prayer the night before the historic surgery.
The ending was happy. Not only did Richard Herrick recover but he met his future wife in the recovery room.
Clare Herrick, the nursing supervisor in the 10-bed recovery room, volunteered on that Christmas weekend for one-on-one care for Richard Herrick because she was away from her home in Nova Scotia and had no holiday plans.
After his release from the hospital, Richard Herrick came calling. The couple married and had two children, one a teacher and the other a nurse at a kidney dialysis unit, said Herrick, 74, who now lives in Scarborough.
Richard Herrick enjoyed good health before developing problems in his new kidney that were unrelated to the surgery. With his health failing, he died on March, 14, 1963, at home in Shrewsbury, Mass., with Clare by his side.
“For God’s sake, don’t let me go back to the hospital,” his wife recalls him saying. She remembers her husband as the happy-go-lucky brother, while Ron Herrick was quiet and more serious.
Clare Herrick never remarried: “I loved one guy in my life, and that was Richard. I just cherished the memories.”
More transplants to follow
The year Herrick died, there were dozens of kidney transplants, and the success rate was high among identical twins. It would be years later, however, before doctors solved the problem of rejected organs.
Ron and his wife Cynthia, both teachers, later moved to Mount Vernon, and Ron Herrick taught at the University of Maine at Augusta. In 1997, the couple moved to the lakeside town of Belgrade, which looked like a Christmas movie set with a few inches of snow on the ground and ice glistening from tree branches as the 50th anniversary of the first transplant approached.
Clare Herrick also ended up in Maine after both daughters moved here. All three now live near each other in Scarborough.
Last May, Clare Herrick and Ron and Cynthia Herrick joined Murray and others during a celebratory dinner at Boston’s Copley Plaza. Murray and Ron Herrick were given a standing ovation. Earlier this month, Ron and Cynthia Herrick were back in Boston, where they were honored during an anniversary observance at Brigham and Women’s.
With the advent of anti-rejection drugs, organ transplants have become much more common.
Nearly a decade after the groundbreaking kidney transplant came the first liver transplant. Then in 1967, the first heart transplant. Anti-rejection drugs have helped to boost the numbers.
Of the 329,999 transplants that have been performed since a registry was established in 1987, about two-thirds have involved kidneys, said Ellie Schlam of the National Kidney Foundation.
Despite his own health problems, Ron Herrick keeps busy. Last summer, he made a pitch for organ donation when he spoke at the annual Transplant Games in Minneapolis.
Herrick would like to see more people authorize organ donations on their driver’s licenses. The National Kidney Foundation says more than 85,000 Americans are on a waiting list for organs.
As for Murray, who lives in Wellesley, Mass., he believes that the first transplant leaves lessons as policy makers grapple with modern medical issues like stem cell research.
“The use of stem cells is an indication of mankind’s innate sense of curiosity, and we shouldn’t stifle it at all,” he said.