LS: Speaking of Science Column November 245, 2008

A history lesson on organ and tissue transplantation

The transplantation of human tissue can be traced back as far as the third century to saints Cosmos and Damian. They were twin Christian martyrs known for practicing the art of healing for which they did not accept payment. They are most known for the “miraculous” grafting of a deceased Ethiopian’s leg to the body of a white patient who had a leg removed because of ulcerations.

Fast forward to the 20th century when the first corneal transplant occurred in 1905 and the world’s first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1954. The 1960s saw the discovery and development of immunosuppressive drugs in combination with advanced knowledge of tissue typing.

These improvements helped with increased survivability of organ transplant recipients and also aided with transplants between non-related persons. Additional 20th century milestones include Denver as the site for the first liver transplant performed by Dr.
Thomas Starzl in 1963, and the first human heart transplant in 1967.

The field of transplantation has since progressed from solid organs (heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys, small intestine) and tissues (bone, skin, soft tissue, veins, heart valves) to cells (pancreatic, hepatic, bone marrow stem cells), all with the hope of saving a person’s life or greatly enhancing the quality of life for others.

So far this year, more than 16,000 lifesaving organ transplants have taken place in the United States (

Annually, 1.5 million tissue grafts are provided for transplant in the U.S. (

Transplantation is one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of medicine. For individuals suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases, it provides hope and the chance for an active and renewed life. Unfortunately, to be a recipient of a lifesaving organ takes time, evaluation and patience, and it is not a guarantee.

Transplantation requires the commitment of organ, eye and tissue donors. Unfortunately, the need for donors is much greater than the number of people who actually donate, and 18 people die each day while waiting for the gift of life.

For more on transplantation, go to:

Catherine Bradham is a regional donation consultant for Donor Alliance, the federally designated organ procurement organization for Colorado. She promotes education and awareness through the hospitals and communities of western Colorado.

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