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In Memoriam: Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD

Mar 06, 2017

The American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS) is deeply saddened by the passing of its founding president, Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD, on March 4, 2017. He was 90. According to his family, he died peacefully at his home in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Starzl’s career is well known in the transplant community, where he is often called the “father of transplantation.” After initiating one of the first clinically relevant kidney transplant programs in 1962, and performing the first human liver transplant in 1963, Dr. Starzl grew these early efforts into a multi-organ transplant program at the University of Colorado through the 1960s and 70s. Pioneering work in basic science, particularly topics related to immunosuppression, patient management, rejection, and long-term outcomes, Dr. Starzl ultimately moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where its transplantation service was renamed Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute in 1996. Dr. Starzl received the nation’s highest honor for scientific achievement, the Medal of Science, in 2005.

Since 1996, he was the Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh and director emeritus of UPMC’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. He was awarded hundreds of honors from organizations around the world during his career.

Timothy L. Pruett, MD, current ASTS President, said, “Tom Starzl was probably the most influential transplant surgeon of our time.  He saw the field evolve from nascency to a mature discipline that has saved thousands of lives. ASTS is grateful for his leadership and inspiration, and his pioneering spirit and caring for his patients will long be remembered and, hopefully, emulated by transplant surgeons all over the world.”

Dr. Starzl was elected the first president of ASTS in 1974 and took office at the Society’s national organizational meeting on October 20. He presided over the first annual meeting in May 1975 and noted, “I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction that, without exception, we have accomplished our original objectives.”

Dr. Starzl’s Presidential Address is available on the ASTS website, in which he said, “A great advance necessitates the overthrow of an established dogma, and when that occurs the advance itself becomes the new dogma to which advocates flock. It is natural for those disciplines to become protectors instead of improvers of the status quo, guardians of the past instead of seekers of the future. To make matters formal, they might even consider creating a society that, if unaware of the dangers, could be the means by which the next stage of improvement were blocked. We know this hazard, ladies and gentlemen of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, and if you avoid it, we should take our place beside the other great professional societies of this country.”

Dr. Starzl wrote some reminiscences of his year as ASTS president in the book commemorating ASTS’ 20th anniversary in 1994, saying in part, “Included in my Presidential Address were some predictions and advice. I would probably give about the same talk today. Perhaps my most accurate prediction was that ASTS would quickly cease being a kidney transplant organization. … I would not change much about the neonatal process if I had it to do over again.”

In 2008, Dr. Starzl graciously agreed to be interviewed for the Chimera Chronicles video series. A video, as well as the complete transcript, are available online. In the interview, Dr. Starzl said, “It’s interesting you should put together triumphs and defeats because almost always they were one and the same. That is, there was something that happened or an assertion or a position or a development that would pop up and would be roundly condemned for three or four or five years and then it turned out to be okay. So that happened on multiple locations, so I felt like I was never…It was like going around a track, a racetrack running around a track over and over again and every time the smoke cleared up from all the controversy engendered by the previous circle, there would be a new controversy and a new puff of smoke. … The smoke never really quite cleared. And a lot of the defeats had to do with that interval between something that came up was denounced and then succeeded. And I suppose the best example of that would be liver transplantation.”

Dr. Starzl in 2014 at ASTS 40th anniversary receptionIn 2014, Dr. Starzl attended a reception held in conjunction with the World Transplant Congress to commemorate ASTS’ 40th anniversary. He briefly addressed the members and guests, noting that “the history of an organization is synonymous with its legacy and easily lost.”

Dr. Starzl is survived by his wife of 36 years, Joy Starzl, son Timothy (Bimla), and a grandchild, Ravi Starzl (Natalie). He was preceded in death by a daughter, Rebecca Starzl, and a son, Thomas F. Starzl. Dr. Starzl’s family has issued a statement about his life and legacy, which you can read here.

Dr. Starzl's public memorial service will be on Saturday, March 11, at 1:00 p.m. at the Heinz Chapel on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Doors will open at 12:00 noon.

The family requests that no flowers be sent. Memorial donations may be made to the Pittsburgh Foundation for the Thomas E. Starzl Fund, 5 PPG Place, Suite 250 Pittsburgh, PA 15222.