Joseph E. Murray


I was born, as were my father and his parents, in Milford, Massachusetts, a town 30 miles southwest of Boston. My father’s parents were of Southern Irish and English extraction. My mother was born in Providence, Rhode Island, soon after her parents had emigrated to the United States from Italy. Father was a lawyer and a District Court Judge, mother a school teacher. Both parents had benefited from and stressed the value of the educational opportunities this country offered. By example and precept they emphasized the need for service to others.

From earliest memory I wanted to be a surgeon, possibly influenced by the qualities of our family doctor who cared for our childhood ailments. As a second year high school chemistry student, I still have a vivid memory of my excitement when I first saw a chart of the periodic table of elements. The order in the universe seemed miraculous, and I wanted to study and learn as much as possible about the natural sciences.

I chose to attend a small liberal arts college, College of the Holy Cross, and concentrated on Latin, Greek, Philosophy and English. Assuming I’d receive ample science in medical school, I took the minimum of chemistry, physics and biology.

My four years at Harvard Medical School were all that I had dreamed they would be. The classmates and faculty were stimulating and friendly. The hospitals were filled with all varieties of patients. Although the hours of study and hospital duty were long, life was rich and full. Symphony Hall and the Gardner Museum were within walking distance, squash courts were available for daily exercise, our singing group met weekly, bicycle trips and club dances added to the variety. It was heaven.

During the final few months of medical school, while attending a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with several classmates and their dates, I noticed a lovely young lady “far too nice” for the fellow she was with. At intermission I manipulated her towards the corridor and learned that she was Bobby Link, a music student concentrating on voice and piano. By the time the intermission had ended I realized that I had met the girl I would marry.

After intermittent dates during my internship and brief meetings during hectic wartime weekends while I was on active duty, Bobby and I were married in June 1945. We have six children, three boys and three girls. Each has contributed to society in her/his own way, in education, medicine, nursing, business and science. Bobby’s music, pursued professionally for 15 years after marriage, continually adds to the richness and beauty of our family and social life.

My only medical school activity bearing any resemblance to research was a study of the then new Papanicolau smear of epithelial cells. I presented a report before the student Boyleston Society with Dr. Arthur Hertig as my faculty sponsor. Later, while a surgical intern at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, I introduced this technique clinically.

My interest in the biology of tissue and organ transplantation arose from my military experience at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. As a First Lieutenant with only a nine-month surgical internship behind me, I was randomly assigned to VFGH to await overseas duty. World War II was still raging, the Rhine River had not been crossed, the Battle of the Bulge was ahead.

VFGH was a major plastic surgical center. While there, I spent all my available spare time on the plastic surgical wards which were jammed with hundreds of battle casualties. I enjoyed talking to the patients, helping with dressings, and observing the results of the imaginative reconstructive surgical operations.

I learned only years later that Colonel James Barrett Brown, the Chief of Plastic Surgery, had noticed my day and night presence on the wards and requested that Lt. Murray be kept at VFGH and not sent overseas like the rest of the “nine-month wonders.” Three years later, two years after the war ended, I finally was discharged in November 1947.

During my army service, we always had many burned patients to care for. Some were so extensively burned that donor sites for skin autografts were not available. As a life-saving measure for these patients, skin grafts were taken from other persons and used as a temporary surface cover.

The slow rejection of the foreign skin grafts fascinated me. How could the host distinguish another person’s skin from his own? Colonel Brown and I often discussed this while scrubbing. In civilian life Brown had treated many severely burned patients with temporary skin allografts and observed and written about the differential dissolution of skin allografts from various donors. He tentatively postulated that the closer the genetic relationship between the skin donor and the recipient, the slower the dissolution of the graft. In 1937, he had experimentally cross skin grafted a pair of identical twins and documented permanent graft survival in both twins. This was the impetus to my study of organ transplantation, which is the subject of my Nobel Lecture.

My life as a surgeon-scientist, combining humanity and science, has been fantastically rewarding. In our daily patients we witness human nature in the raw-fear, despair, courage, understanding, hope, resignation, heroism. If alert, we can detect new problems to solve, new paths to investigate.

Our laboratory work involved close contact with many non-clinical scientists. Sir Peter Medawar, 1960 Nobel Laureate, was a frequent visitor to our lab and to the hospital. He once commented, after visiting an early renal transplant patient, that it was the first time he had been in a hospital ward. Dr. George Hitchings and Dr. Trudy Elion, 1988 Nobel Laureates, were completely at home in our lab and knew many of the dogs by name. Sir Roy Calne, who worked in our laboratory at Harvard Medical School and Peter Bent Brigham in 1960-61 as a Surgical Research Fellow, and I frequently visited them in Tuckahoe, New York, to discuss prospective trial drugs. Billingham, Eichwald, Amos, van Rood – to mention only a few other basic investigators – also enriched the tapestry of our lives.

Medawar said it best, “This whole period was a golden age of immunology, an age abounding in synthetic discoveries all over the world, a time we all thought it was good to be alive. We, who were working on these problems, all knew each other and met as often as we could to exchange ideas and hot news from the laboratory.”

For recreation, I have always been a physical enthusiast. As a family we have camped, hiked, trekked, or backpacked over portions of five continents. Competitive tennis remains fun. Our extended family, with 11 grandchildren, gets together frequently during the year, and always every summer on Martha’s Vineyard Island in Massachusetts.

We have been blessed in our lives beyond my wildest dreams. My only wish would be to have ten more lives to live on this planet. If that were possible, I’d spend one lifetime each in embryology, genetics, physics, astronomy and geology. The other lifetimes would be as a pianist, backwoodsman, tennis player, or writer for the National Geographic. If anyone has bothered to read this far, you would note that I still have one future lifetime unaccounted for. That is because I’d like to keep open the option for another lifetime as a surgeon-scientist.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1990, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1991

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

For more updated biographical information, see:
Murray, Joseph E., Surgery of the Soul: Reflections on a Curious Career. Science History Publications, Watson Publishing International, Sagamore, MA, 2001.

Joseph E. Murray died on 26 November 2012.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1990

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