Ronald Lee Herrick, the world’s first organ donor died last month. Mr. Herrick donated a kidney to his twin brother Richard in 1954 when they were both 23 years old. You can read his obituary in and in the AP syndicate. His death occurred just four days after the 56th anniversary of his pioneering kidney operation (called a donor nephrectomy).

RonaldLeeHerrick Ronald Lee Herrick. Photo from AP

Prior to the Herrick brothers’ surgery, organ transplants had been performed on animal subjects but the transplants, usually skin grafts, would be rejected and the host would often die. A surgeon at what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston named Dr. Joseph Murray speculated that transplants between identical twins would overcome that obstacle. He was correct and later went on to win a Nobel Prize.

Until the invention of immunosuppressive medications like cyclosporine, organ transplant was considered a high risk therapy, even between identical twins. Today, organ rejection is a serious but usually manageable condition and most organs for transplant come from unrelated deceased donors. Among living donors, related donors are still the most common, but unrelated donors are a rapidly growing group (see Jun 2010 blog post).

Mr. Herrick was the longest surviving organ donor the entire time he was alive. Given his young age at the time of donation, and the small number of transplants performed until the 1980s, it’s unlikely that Mr. Herrick’s longevity record will be broken any time soon.

Back in 1954 a donor nephrectomy was a very invasive procedure. It involved removing a rib and a long postoperative recovery. The risk of death from surgery was much higher then too. Plus, as the first donor, neither the surgeon or the patient would know what the long-term consequences of living with one kidney would be. So here’s to you Mr. Herrick; your bravery paved the way for all of us donors who came after you.

[Update1: I was just thinking. I’d like to live 56 years beyond my donor surgery date (9/29/2010). That would only make me 107!]

[Update2: I was wrong about how likely it is that Mr. Herrick’s longevity record will be long-standing. There are several other donors who were about the same age as him who donated to an identical twin sibling in the early 1950s. At least one of them is still alive as indicated in Boston Globe Apr 2011.]