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Historic Operating Room Rediscovered During Renovation May Be Site of First Organ Transplant

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In this iconic 1954 photo, shot from the balcony above the operating theater, Joseph Murray (center) and his colleagues perform the first successful human organ transplant. – Courtesy of Harvard University

During recent renovations to a clinic and office space in the second largest teaching hospital at Harvard Medical School, construction crews uncovered remnants of a historical operating room—the OR believed to have hosted the world’s first successful human organ transplant.

While removing walls, workers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital were surprised to find what appeared to be an old operating room with an adjacent balcony for watching surgical cases.

Brigham faculty members had heard over the years that an old OR from the predecessor institution (Peter Bent Brigham Hospital) was in the vicinity of this location, but they thought it was one floor below.

But, when photos of the abandoned space were compared to historical images in the hospital’s archives, the architectural features of the room suggest it was likely the OR where Dr. Joseph Murray transplanted a kidney from one identical twin to another 68 years ago.

After the procedure in 1954, Murray would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work—and the subsequent development of immunosuppressive drugs.

A painting by Joel Babb, The First Successful Kidney Transplantation depicted a wide view of what Murray’s operating room looked like, before undergoing many renovations over the years which prepared the space for other uses.

While the artist took some artistic liberties in recreating the scene on canvas, there are striking similarities between details in the painting and rediscovered room, such as the upper arches in the balcony, explained Catherine Pate, hospital archivist.

Architectural features of the unearthed operating room (left) share considerable similarities to the scene depicted in Joel Babb’s painting (right) of the first successful human organ transplant, which took place at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in 1954. (Right image credit: Harvard Medical Library collection, Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library, Harvard University)

“The most requested picture of all the many thousands in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Archives is the one we have of the kidney transplant between brothers Ronald and Richard Herrick on Dec. 23, 1954, in a Brigham operating room. From the evidence, it is likely this room,” Pate told the Brigham Bulletin.

“The achievement of the first-ever successful human organ transplant was comparable in the field of medicine to the first moon landing in the field of aerospace. The bravery of this step into the unknown, especially by the first donor, Ronald Herrick, and the physician/scientists of the Peter Bent Brigham transplantation team, takes your breath away when you stop to think about it.”

“It happened here. What a legacy!”

The room itself was part of the original Peter Bent Brigham building in Boston at 15 Francis St., dating back to 1912. And while features of the room such as the balcony were retained in later reconfigurations, the original fixtures and furnishings were updated over the years and, subsequently, have been lost to history, explained Sonal Gandhi, vice president of Real Estate, Planning and Development.

“Although no original parts of the original operating room were found during this latest renovation, plans are underway to ensure this discovery is acknowledged and commemorated,” Gandhi said.

The historic OR also appears to be the operating room favored by legendary American surgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing—the father of neurosurgery.

From 1912 to 1932, the Harvard Medical School professor and founding surgeon-in-chief at the hospital was a pioneer in surgical technique, including electrocautery, and developed basic techniques and procedures still used in neurosurgery.

The same OR was also used by Dwight Harken, MD, the chief of Thoracic Surgery from 1948 to 1970. He demonstrated early cardiac surgery and is often considered one of the founding fathers of heart surgery and credited as the creator of intensive care units for critically ill patients.

(Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Brigham Bulletin)

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