Throwback Thursday: The First Successful Organ Transplant

When one man gave a kidney to his twin brother in a Boston hospital, confidence in a lifesaving surgery grew.

Richard Herrick, left, and his twin brother Ronald (AP Photo)

Richard Herrick, left, and his twin brother Ronald (AP Photo)

On June 4, 1965, 60 years ago today, twins Ronald and Richard Herrick of Northborough, Mass. were photographed looking happy and healthy at the annual meeting of the Mended Hearts Club at a hotel in Boston.

The picture itself is unremarkable, but the fact that the picture could be taken was itself a medical miracle. Just six months earlier, Ronald, then 23 years old, donated a kidney to his dying twin brother. The procedure, performed at what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is considered the first successful organ transplant. Richard lived for eight years after the surgery at a time when other transplant recipients had lasted just a few months. Their doctor, Joseph Murray, later won a Nobel Prize.

When Murray performed the procedure, the concept of organ transplants remained controversial. Many doctors considered operating on a healthy donor to be a violation of their oath to do no harm. But Richard was dying of chronic nephritis. Murray had a hunch that a transplant between identical twins would stand a better chance at success, and Ronald was perfectly willing to try anything to save his brother. “I’m here, and I’m going to stay, and that’s it,” Ronald wrote to his brother on the eve of the surgery when Richard urged him to back out.

The success of the procedure gave public confidence in transplants an enormous boost, but Ronald lived a quiet life, talking little about the surgery, according to his Boston Globe obituary. He taught math in Maine until his retirement, and died in 2010 at the age of 79.