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70 Years of Groundbreaking Transplants

8 minute read

Every April we celebrate National Donate Life Month to commemorate the generosity of lifesaving people who donate their organs. There continues to be a great need for organs, especially kidneys, for which there are the greatest number of people waiting according to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

In March 2024, Massachusetts General Hospital marked a new milestone in kidney transplantation by successfully transplanting a genetically modified pig kidney into a human patient. This innovation could be revolutionary for future patients. It builds on a long legacy of Mass General Brigham breakthroughs, beginning with the first successful human organ transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1954.

View a snapshot of significant transplant milestones from the past 70 years in the and read on for a full history of transplant achievements at Mass General Brigham.

Inforgraphic with a timeline of significant transplant milestones from Mass General Brigham.

1954: The first successful human organ transplant, a kidney transplanted from one identical twin to another, is accomplished by Joseph Murray, MD, at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, now Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In 1990, Dr. Murray receives the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work and the subsequent development of immunosuppressive drugs in 1990. Learn more about kidney transplants.

1959: The first non-identical twin transplant is performed by Dr. Murray and his team at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital using radiation as an immunosuppressant.

1962: Dr. Murray and team at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital perform the first deceased donor transplant receiving chemical immunosuppression.

1962: A surgical team at Mass General spends eight hours reconnecting the bones, blood vessels, nerves, muscles and skin of a 12-year-old boy's arm after it is torn off at the shoulder. The procedure is a success, and with long-term therapy, he regains use of the arm.

1968: A commission at Harvard Medical School chaired by Henry K. Beecher, MD, an anesthesiologist at Mass General, together with Dr. Murray, a surgeon, and John Merrill, MD, a nephrologist, both at the Brigham, define brain death as the basis for the utilization of organs from deceased donors.

1983: New England’s first successful liver transplant is performed at Mass General.

1984: The first heart transplant in New England is performed at the Brigham. Learn more about heart disease.

1986: The first successful pancreas transplant in New England is performed at Mass General.

1990: The first adult lung transplant in Massachusetts is performed at the Brigham.

1991: New England’s first successful small bowel transplant surgery takes place at Mass General.

1992: The first heart-lung transplant in Massachusetts is performed at the Brigham.

1993: The first heart-liver transplant in New England is performed by Mass General surgeons.

1995: The nation’s first triple organ transplant takes place at the Brigham. Three organs are removed from a single donor–two lungs and a heart–and transplanted into three patients, giving each a new lease on life.

1995: The first double-lobe, living-related lung transplant in New England takes place at Mass General.

1999: A team from the Mass General Bone Marrow Transplant Program and the Transplantation Biology Research Center develops a new, less toxic preparative regimen allowing use of bone marrow transplantation from mismatched donors to treat certain blood-cell cancers. Simultaneous kidney and bone marrow transplantation treats the patient’s multiple myeloma and allows for discontinuation of immunosuppressive drugs without rejection of the kidney.

2000: In what is believed to be a first in organ transplantation, a quadruple transplant is performed at the Brigham. Four organs are harvested from a single donor — a kidney, two lungs and a heart — and transplanted into four patients.

2000: Surgeons from the Mass General transplant team are the first to perform split-liver transplant procedures in the Northeastern U.S. The procedure, in which the liver from a single donor is divided between two recipients—usually an adult and a child—is another way to deal with the continuing shortage of donor organs. 

2001: Mass General researchers discover stem cells within the pancreas that can generate insulin-secreting beta cells. Subsequent research could lead to ways to induce growth of a patient’s own pancreatic islet cells for transplantation.

2004: For the first time in the United States, five lung transplants take place in 36 hours at the Brigham. Hundreds of Brigham staff — including doctors, nurses and intensive care staff — assist.

2005: The 500th heart transplant takes place at the Brigham, the most for any New England hospital. This historic operation adds the Brigham to an exclusive list of hospitals nationwide to reach this mark, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing.

2009: A 35-member surgical team at the Brigham performs a partial face transplant, the second such procedure to be performed in the U.S. The team works for 17 hours to replace the mid-face area of the patient including the nose, hard palate, upper lip, facial skin, muscles of facial animation, and the nerves that power them and provide sensation.

2011: A multidisciplinary team at the Brigham performs the first full face transplantation in the United States on a white male patient, going on to complete a total of three full face transplants in 2011. They also perform their first bilateral hand transplant this year.

2011: A team at the Brigham performs a bilateral hand transplant while also performing a full-face transplant. The hands failed to thrive and were later removed. Later that year, the team performs another bilateral hand transplant and the patient lives for 12 years with the transplanted hands.

2012: A Mass General patient is the first person in New England to receive a heart transplant using “heart in a box” technology, which is different from the traditional method of packing a donor heart on ice until transplantation. Instead, the portable Organ Care System delivers warm, oxygenated, nutrient-enriched blood to the heart after it is removed from a donor and monitors it while it continues to beat in a nearly normal state.

2012: A team at the Brigham implants the first total artificial heart in New England. In this procedure, which is considered a bridge to transplantation, a device replaces the patient’s heart and pumps blood throughout the body until a donor heart becomes available for transplant.

2012: The first hand transplant at Mass General is performed on a survivor of the devastating 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island.

2014: Mass General is the first hospital in New England to successfully perform a “lung-in-a-box” transplant. Instead of being transported to the hospital in a cooler, donor lungs are transported inside a portable organ-preservation device like the heart box system.

2016: The nation’s first genitourinary reconstructive (penile) transplant is performed at Mass General.

2016: Marine John Peck receives a bilateral arm transplant at the Brigham and is rehabilitated at Spaulding Rehabilitation.

2019: The first full face transplant for a Black patient is performed at the Brigham. A team of more than 45 clinicians is involved in the 16-hour surgery, which is the ninth face transplant performed at the Brigham and the 15th nationwide.

2019: A research team at the Brigham reports that hepatitis C-infected thoracic organs can be safely transplanted, detecting no signs of the disease and good outcomes for the transplanted organs in all patients treated with a preemptive, short course of antivirals.

2020: A team at the Brigham becomes the first in the United States to perform a second face transplant for a patient during a 20-hour procedure.

2024: An MGH team performs the world’s first transplant of a genetically edited pig kidney into a living human.