Thomas E. Starzl

views updated

Thomas E. Starzl


American Surgeon and Researcher

Thomas E. Starzl is the father of liver transplantation and a pioneer in the field of organ transplants. In a career spanning nearly five decades, his research and surgical techniques have set the standard for organ transplants worldwide. Starzl stands as one of the greatest medical minds of the twentieth century.

Born in the small town of LeMars, Iowa ("corn and hog capital of the world") in 1926, Starzl grew up in a strict German Catholic family. His father, Roman (R.F.), was editor and publisher of the daily paper. His mother, Anna Laura Fitzgerald, was a surgical nurse and his inspiration in pursuing a career in medicine. Reportedly, the driven young man knew he wanted to be a surgeon by age 11.

Starzl was an outstanding student in high school and worked summers for his father at the newspaper. He was on the debating, football, and basketball teams and even played the trumpet in the band. Next, Starzl majored in biology at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, then went on to Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. By 1952 he had earned both a Ph.D. in neurophysiology and an M.D. with distinction.

Starzl held surgical residencies and fellow-ships at Johns Hopkins, the University of Miami, and the Veterans Administration Research Hospital in Chicago. In 1958 he returned to Northwestern, where he performed surgery and conducted research. At the time Starzl searched for a subject, as he recalls, "difficult and complex enough to invest a lifetime in." It turned out to be the nascent field of liver transplant. "Transplanting was hardly even thought of as a possibility then," Starzl remembers. "I was working blind."

Transplant surgery and research attracted Starzl because it was a new field and fulfilled his commitment to saving lives. In 1962 Starzl, with wife, Barbara, and three children, joined the University of Colorado School of Medicine. While at Colorado, Starzl made his mark in organ transplanting. Liver transplant surgeries, Starzl soon discovered, were grueling tests of endurance and stamina, but the more difficult aspect was that the body's own immune system fought against the new organ. Starzl spent long hours of research trying to overcome this challenge.

Although few colleagues agreed with him, Starzl's early research successes bolstered his efforts and convinced him that liver transplant would work in humans. On March 1, 1963, Starzl performed the world's first human liver transplant, but the patient bled to death during the operation. Starzl's work continued, to the chagrin of the legal establishment. In 1967, the same year as the first heart, pancreas, and lung transplants, Starzl met success when a young girl lived for 13 months after having her liver replaced. By the time he left Colorado, Starzl and his surgical team had transplanted over 1,000 livers.

In 1980 Starzl accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Already a medical superstar, Starzl and his second wife, Joy, settled into the Steel City and built the hospital into the world's foremost transplant institute, re-named the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute in 1996. Starzl did not stop at research and surgery, either. He founded the United Network of Organ Sharing, which prioritizes the recipient list nationwide. Hopping planes and helicopters through adverse weather conditions and operating for up to 24 hours straight, Starzl and his team also established the logistical system of retrieving donated organs, then transporting them for surgery.

After two heart surgeries of his own in 1990 and reaching age 65 a year later, Starzl stopped operating. It was a relief for him, as he described in his 1992 memoir, The Puzzle People, "I was not emotionally equipped to be a surgeon or to deal with its brutality." As a researcher, Starzl is the most cited scientist in clinical medicine and has averaged one paper every 7.3 days, making him one of the most prolific scientist in the world.

Starzl's amazing career has laid the foundation for nearly all the work done today in liver transplantation. His research into anti-rejection drugs and his pioneering spirit set the stage for the high success rate liver transplant patients can now expect. His most important legacy may be that he and his team from UPMC have taught other surgeons around the globe, thus making liver transplants accessible worldwide. Recently, Starzl placed 213th in the book, 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: The Men and Women Who Charted the Course of History for the last Millennium.


About this article

Thomas E. Starzl

Updated About content Print Article