Dr. Thomas Starzl, the man who pioneered liver transplantation, has died peacefully in his Pittsburgh home on Saturday. Over the course of his long career, Starzl was able to successfully transplant more than a thousands organs, saving countless lives in the process. His death happened just a few days short of his 91st birthday, which would have been on March 11.
Dr. Starzl’s death was confirmed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which published an official statement from the esteemed doctor’s family. Known as the “father of organ transplantation,” Starzl played a huge role in advancing the surgical procedure to mainstream medicine. According to his family, however, Starzl was a lot more than a bold and excellent doctor.
“Thomas Starzl was many things to many people. He was a pioneer, a legend, a great human, and a great humanitarian. He was a force of nature that swept all those around him into his orbit, challenging those that surrounded him to strive to match his superhuman feats of focus, will and compassion.
“His work in neuroscience, metabolism, transplantation and immunology has brought life and hope to countless patients, and his teaching in these areas has spread that capacity for good to countless practitioners and researchers everywhere. With determination and irresistible resolve, Thomas Starzl advanced medicine through his intuition and uncanny insight into both the technical and human aspects of even the most challenging problems.
“Even more extraordinary was his ability to gift that capacity to those around him, allowing his students and colleagues to discover the right stuff within themselves. Nobody who spent time with Thomas Starzl could remain unaffected.”
Though Starzl died as one of the most respected names in modern medicine, there was a time when the doctor drew his own fair share of criticism for his work, according to an NPR report. Back in 1963, Starzl and a team of surgeons attempted to perform the world’s first liver transplant on a child who was born with just half a liver. Despite the doctor’s best efforts then, the patient ultimately died due to massive blood loss from the operation.
— BTS (@BTStransplant) March 5, 2017
Though embroiled in a fair amount of criticism, Dr. Starzl went on to attempt yet another liver transplant, this time on a liver cancer patient, just two months later. While the patient survived the operation, the man died just three weeks later due to blood clotting. Despite this, however, Starzl remained undeterred. By the late 1970s, liver transplants had reached a pretty fair survival rate of 40 percent.
Starzl eventually moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1981 to work as a professor of surgery, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report. During his tenure there, Starzl led a team of surgeons in the first liver transplant in Pittsburgh. In 1981 alone, Starzl and his team performed 30 transplants, becoming the first program of its kind available in the United States.
Starzl eventually became the chief of transplantation services at the UPMC Presbyterian, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Pittsburgh. During that time, the pioneer surgeon was overseeing the largest organ transplantation program in the world. After getting a coronary bypass himself in 1990, however, Starzl finally decided to that it was time for him to give up his tools and retire.
— Pitt (@PittTweet) March 5, 2017
While arguably one of the most decorated surgeons in the world, Starzl’s family stated that the transplantation pioneer is best remembered as a teacher and a friend. In a statement to the UPMC, the Starzl family described who the pioneer surgeon really was beyond the operating table.
“Thomas Starzl is a globally recognized pioneer in science and medicine, but beyond that mantle, he was simply known and loved for the person that he was. He was husband and soulmate to Joy Starzl, father to Tim Starzl, Thomas F. Starzl and Rebecca Starzl, grandfather to Ravi Starzl (Natalie), and godparent to Lamont Chatman and Angela Ford. He was deeply loved for his tremendous wit, humor and sensitivity. His traits of humility, keen observation and seemingly limitless memory fused to create a unique personality that was at the same time inspiring and comforting.”
Dr. Thomas Starzl is survived by his wife, Joy, his son, Timothy and Ravi, a grandchild.
[Featured Image by Mary Altaffer/AP Images]