First Successful Organ Transplant, Little Company of Mary, 1950

Ruth Tucker, 49, suffered from polycystic kidneys and was in need of a new kidney. One of her kidneys was non-functioning and the other only functioned at 10 percent. Tucker’s mother and sister had also died from the same disease. The doctors, hospital leadership and patient bravely decided to attempt something that hadn’t been done before—an organ transplant. History was made at Little Company of Mary Hospital on June 17, 1950, when doctors performed the first successful organ transplant in the world.

A Time article on July 3, 1950 called it “a desperate experiment on a woman doomed to die because both kidneys were hopelessly diseased.” Tucker had waited at the hospital for five weeks prior to June 17 for a suitable donor. That morning, a healthy kidney became available from a woman who had died of cirrhosis of the liver. “Not the most ideal patient, but the best we could find,” said Dr. Lawler, the surgeon who directed the transplant, in an interview after the surgery.

A photographer who had been hired to take a motion picture of the procedure fainted midway through—apparently not used to seeing operations. Luckily, plenty of backup was at hand, as around 40 doctors looked on during the surgery, including some standing on tables in the back to get a view of this historic event. One of the doctors in the audience took over behind the camera. At 11:30 AM, the kidney was removed from the donor, and 45 minutes later the transplant was complete, blood flowing through the kidney and Tucker recovering from the surgery.

The surgery was extremely courageous, given that it was done without anti-infection drugs, tissue typing and other advances that are now standard. A Newsweek article a week after the surgery was headlined, “Borrowed from the Dead”. The article stated, “Successful transplants have been made of bones, skin, nerves, tendons and eye corneas. But up to last week, no vital human organ had ever been moved from one person to another. Then, in a daring surgical feat, Dr. Richard M. Lawler of the Little Company of Mary Hospital, Chicago, removed a diseased kidney from Mrs. Ruth Tucker…The patient was ‘willing to gamble rather than lie back and wait for death,’ Dr. Lawler said.” A month later, Tucker was released from the hospital, a medical miracle. She lived five years before dying from a coronary occlusion following pneumonia.

The photo to the left shows a reunion of a few who made the surgery possible. Some participants in the surgery included:

  • Dr. Richard Lawler, senior attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital and member of the faculty of Stritch School of Medicine of Loyola University
  • Dr. James West, who later went on to study alcoholism as a disease and launch the Betty Ford Clinic, of which he later became Medical Director.
  • Dr. Raymond Murphy, now retired and active in the Evergreen Park community.
  • Mary Lou Zidek, a nurse who assisted the anesthesiologist during the surgery and is now a volunteer and member of the Auxiliary.
  • Nora O’Malley, scrub nurse, who is currently retired and living in McHenry.

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