Dr. Thomas Starzl, Eagle Scout and ‘Father of Transplantation,’ dies at 90

Dr. Thomas Starzl, an Eagle Scout who performed the first-ever liver transplant in 1963 and pioneered transplant surgery and anti-rejection drugs, died on March 4 at age 90.

Dr. Starzl’s research advanced organ transplantation from a risky and rare procedure to a surgery accessible to patients in need.

“We regard him as the father of transplantation,” says Dr. Abhinav Humar, clinical director of the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. “His legacy in transplantation is hard to put into words — it’s really immense.”

Before he became a doctor, Starzl earned his Eagle Scout rank on April 21, 1941 in Troop 71 of Le Mars, Iowa.

He performed the first-ever liver transplant in 1963 and the first-ever successful liver transplant in 1967, both at the University of Colorado. According to a statement from the University of Pittsburgh, these groundbreaking efforts lead to the largest series of kidney transplants and invigorated clinical attempts throughout the world.

Dr. Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1981 as a professor of surgery, and he launched the nation’s only liver transplant program.

As chief of transplantation services at Presbyterian University Hospital (now UPMC Presbyterian), the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (now Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC) and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Pittsburgh, he led the largest and busiest transplant programs in the world.

He later served as director of the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, which was renamed the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute in 1996.

During his impressive career, Dr. Starzl was the recipient of more than 200 awards and 26 honorary doctorates from universities around the globe. His autobiography, The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992.

Starzl is survived by his wife of 36 years, Joy Starzl, his son, Timothy, and a grandchild Ravi Starzl. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Rebecca Starzl, and a son, Thomas F. Starzl.

Photos courtesy of the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute and University of Pittsburgh/Special to the Register (inset).

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Starzl was a fixture on the biomedical campus … One thing that struck most people was his unpretentious demeanor. Most folks wouldn’t recognize that he was anybody important until someone made introductions.
    I attendend one of his lectures years ago. One thing he emphasized was unending gratitude to the patients and their families who allowed him and his team to operate when organ rejection was to be the likely outcome. They consented with the hope that some day transplant teams would be able to improve the lives of countless other patients.

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