Book Explores History of Organ Transplants Comprehensive Saga Traces the Origins of Today's Procedures

By Templeton, David | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Book Explores History of Organ Transplants Comprehensive Saga Traces the Origins of Today's Procedures


Templeton, David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Working for years on the ambitious project, David Hamilton found it broader than expected. And that is what eventually sent him searching through the dark and dusty basement shelves of the Royal Society of Medicine's library in London.

With the long-hidden information, he realized that the history of organ transplantation was no 20th century phenomenon -- that the seeds of its history were planted centuries, even millennia, ago, only to blossom in recent decades.

Human persistence, in fits and starts, setbacks and surges, represents one of the amazing characteristics of transplantation history.

Dr. Hamilton's book, "A History of Organ Transplantation: Ancient Legends to Modern Practice," published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, includes a forward written by Pittsburgh transplant pioneer Thomas E. Starzl, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh transplantation center that bears his name, along with Clyde F. Barker, distinguished service professor and emeritus professor of surgery at Pitt.

The hardcover 556-page book, the first comprehensive international history of transplantation, is written for the average reader without ignoring scientific detail that drew the interest of Dr. Starzl, the most famous living transplant surgeon and scientist who made Pittsburgh what Dr. Hamilton described as the center of transplantation.

"I think it's a fabulous book that's easy to read. I've read it rather carefully, and I'm more interested in antiquity than the current era," said Dr. Starzl, a central figure in the modern era that he detailed in his own 1992 memoir, "The Puzzle People."

The complicated history might intimidate some readers, he said: "If you take the chapters one by one, they are riveting. It is easy to get overloaded. But each chapter is a story unto itself.

"I'm very happy that Dr. Hamilton was able to get the job done."

Dr. Hamilton, 73, is a retired transplant surgeon living in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he's an honorary professor who teaches medical history at the School of Medicine of the University of St. Andrews. He also wrote "The Monkey Gland Affair" and "The Healers: A History of Medicine in Scotland."

He spent 15 years tracking down transplantation history only to discover how long people have striven to fix medical problems -- damaged or missing skin, lost limbs and fingers and noses, lost teeth and eventually damaged and diseased organs -- by trying to use body parts from others, the dead or animals.

From skin grafts and plastic surgery to heart transplants, the history of organ transplantation is long and complicated with hideous failures followed by incremental successes that served to inspire scientists to proceed, often against steady criticism or claims that transplants were unnatural, unethical or sinful.

Just as science fiction popularizes and inspires scientific inquiry, ancient folklore is filled with tales of "magical replacement of lost tissues," including "restoration of limbs or eyes, and even the replacement of decapitated heads," the book states. …

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