His own story is told through the stories of others: A World War II aviator whose face and hands were burned beyond recognition; a young boy who was abandoned by his mother and locked away in an institution for 20 years because of a facial deformity; identical twins who were the first successful kidney transplant patients in history.
Eleven years ago, Dr. Joseph E. Murray won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering kidney transplant work in the 1950s.
This summer Dr. Murray, who is considered one of the preeminent surgeons of the 20th century, has published an account of his life and his work in an unusual book.
Titled Surgery of the Soul, the book is at once a set of medical case studies and an intensely human story. It is the story of a boy who grew up in Milford and was curious about the ants that marched across his path as he tramped through the woods, a boy who decided at a young age that he wanted to be a surgeon. It is the story of a scientist who was at the center of a heady, trailblazing era in medicine. And finally it is the story of a doctor who cared only about his patients — and his family.
"The privilege of taking care of fellow human beings is tremendous," the 82-year-old retired surgeon said in an interview this week from his airy summer home in a quiet inland spot on Chappaquiddick.
On Wednesday afternoon the house was overflowing with tow-headed grandchildren, the back stoop strewn with sandy summer shoes. The children and their assorted parents tumbled out the door for a beach expedition, and suddenly the house was quiet. Dr. Murray and his wife Bobby sat on the couch and talked about the book.
He said: "It really just started out as a series of case studies on my patients over the years. But then I showed it to a colleague and he said, ‘Joe it doesn't tell about you, it doesn't tell anything about your family and your spiritual side. You need to fill in the spaces.' "
Soon a different book emerged, helped along the way by three editors plus his six grown children and his best editor and best critic — his wife. Dr. Murray's love and devotion for his wife is an unmistakable theme in the book.
He grew up in Milford. He attended public high school, the College of the Holy Cross, and Harvard Medical School.
His career was shaped by a series of chance encounters, especially during World War II, when his surgical residency at Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston was interrupted and he joined the Army. A random assignment sent him to the Valley Forge General Hospital, a plastic and reconstructive surgical hospital in Pennsylvania. One of Dr. Murray's patients was a young aviator named Charles Woods, a precocious pilot who had been flying the "Hump" from Burma into China for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Charles Woods was an instructor pilot, and his plane had caught fire when one of his students made a fatal error during takeoff.
The story is the first chapter in Surgery of the Soul.
"His face had been erased by fire. Charles Woods was a human form — one whose age could not possibly be determined from his appearance. In fact he was 22 years old. What awaited him over the next two years was 24 operations, many conducted with only minimal anesthesia, and unimaginable pain. A team of surgeons was going to try to buy him a new face and functioning hands and to give him back his life.
"At age 25 I was the most junior member of the team. The questions raised and lessons learned in trying to help Charles would determine the course of the rest of my professional life," Dr. Murray wrote.
Skin grafting and reconstructive surgery were not new procedures, but his own introduction to this area of medicine began to stir a new curiosity in the young surgeon.
"I began to wonder whether it would ever be feasible to go beyond skin. Would it someday be possible to remove a healthy internal organ from a recently deceased person and transplant it into a person who would otherwise die?" he wrote.
After his discharge from the Army, Dr. Murray moved back to Boston with his wife, the former Virginia "Bobby" Link, a music school student whom he had met when he was in medical school and later married.
He resumed his residency at "the Brigham" as it was known, and eventually opened a private practice in plastic surgery. He also joined a renal transplant research team.
The biggest problem with transplant work was immune rejection, but in 1954 the surgical team found a breakthrough with identical twin brothers named Richard and Ronald Herrick. Richard Herrick was admitted to the hospital with a life-threatening kidney disease. His brother, Ronald, donated a healthy kidney — and the transplant worked.
The dramatic story of the Herrick twins is covered in great detail in the book. There were in fact many problems and Richard Herrick died seven years later, but the breakthrough was complete. Dr. Murray and his team went on to perform more successful kidney transplants among twins, and the work later moved to transplants from cadavers after they also pioneered the development of immunosuppressive drugs.
Dr. Murray also chronicles his family love affair with the Vineyard in the book. It began in 1958, when he was deeply involved in the kidney transplant work. It was a difficult period, and many of the patients died. It was mid-summer and Dr. Murray was exhausted. His chief surgeon insisted that he take some time off. He and Bobby put the kids in the car and drove until they got to Woods Hole. "I thought it would be a fun adventure to hop on whatever boat happened along and have faith that it would take us somewhere wonderful. It did," he wrote.
They went to Edgartown, discovered Chappaquiddick and met Chappy resident Vance Packard, who was trying to move a refrigerator into his house. They helped him with the fridge and struck a deal to rent the house for a month. "I think we sensed on some level that Martha's Vineyard would come to be deeply important in all of our lives," he wrote.
In 1970 the Murrays bought a piece of inland property on Chappy. For two years they simply camped on the land with their children in the summer, hanging pots and pans from the trees, pounding their own well by hand with the help of the late Foster Silva. In 1972 they learned that the old Parmenter property was for sale at Cape Pogue. They bought 40 acres and an old Coast Guard shack, and it was their castle. Many years later they built a house on the inland property. This is the house where they now spend every summer, while the children use the camp at Cape Pogue.
There were many twists and turns in Dr. Murray's self-described "curious career."
He eventually gave up transplant work and devoted himself exclusively to reconstructive surgery. "Just what type of doctor was I anyway?" he wondered out loud in the book.
The case studies are compelling. There is the story of Ray McMillan, born with a facial deformity, abandoned by his mother and placed in an institution for the mentally retarded. At age 21 he was rescued by his grandmother and Dr. Murray was able to correct the deformity.
And there is the case study of his own stroke in 1986, three months before he was due to retire. He recovered completely, but it was a time of change. "I had long been aware that roadblocks along life's path can become stepping stones. . . I had no regrets," he wrote.
He also wrote: "But [in 1990] as I was puttering around the Vineyard one August day, cutting wood and making trails named after each of our 15 grandchildren, I reviewed my life and began to think that the world had passed me by, that my contributions to surgery had already been forgotten."
Two months later he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
In the book and in the interview, Dr. Murray reflected on his own spiritual beliefs and how they helped him through many difficult times in his career.
He recalled a moment a few years ago when he gave a lecture at Harvard Medical School and a fifth-year medical student gave him a ride to the lecture. They talked, and at one point Dr. Murray recalled a surprising observation from the medical student. "He said, ‘Dr. Murray, in five years of medical school you are the only doctor who has ever spoken to me about spiritual values.' "
He said the doctoring side of medicine can be a deterrent, even for the brightest students.
"I can remember some of my fellow medical school students, they were bright as hell and they would stand up in front of the room and ask the most erudite questions. But some of these people fell by the wayside because they could not take the responsibility of patient care and making decisions. It happens.
"A colleague said to me a while back, ‘Joe, you're the last guy I ever thought would win a Nobel Prize.' I took it as a compliment."
Dr. Murray will give a talk about his book at the Chappaquiddick Community Center on Tuesday night at 5 p.m.