Nobel Winner Joseph Murray: Vigorous at 88

By JACK SHEA

Dr. Joseph E. Murray chooses to live a simple life and at 88 he remains full of awe and wonder at the world.

And despite being lionized as a medical pioneer for half his life, he is somehow right-sized. The natural beauty of the Vineyard gives him all he needs, he says.

In a recent conversation at his home on Chappaquiddick, the Nobel Prize-winning surgeon used poetry to illustrate how his Island home enables him to experience his life.

"William Blake was a painter as well as a mystic poet and I enjoy the verse he wrote in Auguries of Innocence," he said, quoting the verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

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"I love the dirt roads of Chappy and the flowers along the fences and the vast blue sky. It's an oasis of beauty, I think. We can live a rural life amid beauty. I'm aware of the sky and ocean more vividly than ever. I often say to the guys at the gatehouse at Dyke Bridge as I go out to Cape Pogue - another day at the Garden of Eden. Of course there is evil in the Garden of Eden. Why would anyone want a house with five bathrooms? You can only use one at a time."

He ends the thought with a puckish smile.

"I am still learning at 88. Eagerness to learn is a source of life for me. The secret is to learn every day," he said.

A native of Milford and now a resident of Wellesley and Chappaquiddick, Dr. Murray won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990 for his pioneering kidney transplant work in the 1950s. He graduated from The College of the Holy Cross and Harvard Medical School and served as an Army surgeon during World War 11, an experience that helped to shape his breakthrough medical work. He has been honored by several nations and has performed operations on five continents. In 2001, he published Surgery of the Soul, an account of his life and medical work.

He is preparing a second book about science and spiritual values. "That's what I'm trying to weave together in this next book, the permanence of spiritual values and the permanence of electrons," he said.

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Married for 62 years to his wife Bobby, they have six children and 18 grandchildren. They have had a home on Chappy for 60 years. "The greatest hoax in fairy tales is ‘And they lived happily ever after'," he said. "None of us lives happily ever after. We have moments of happiness and there are always disagreements but we come to a realization that love is the only permanence in life and we commit to it." He pointed to a collage of five pictures of his wife at various stages of her life. "I look at those pictures every morning and remember the various times and stages in our lives," he said.

There are still so many stories to tell. There was the time in a Phoenixville, Pa. when a young Dr. Murray and his Walter Reed Hospital colleagues were treating badly burned World War II American combatants. Pilot Charles Woods, his face burned beyond recognition, was admitted. "We didn't think he was going to make it and he just wanted to die, he was in so much pain," Dr. Murray recalled. He said Mr. Woods's primary caregiver was a volunteer nurse who sat constantly with the pilot and offered the only help available for his injuries. "She prayed for him. It seemed to me that he lived because another person wanted him to," he said. Mr. Woods's recovery and successful skin transplants were a seminal event in Dr. Murray's career.

During the countless surgeries to rebuild the pilot's face, the question kept popping into his mind: "If we can transplant skin, what else can we transplant?" A little over a decade later, he found the answer, successfully transplanting a kidney from one twin to his brother. "I wasn't the only person who had that idea, medical literature going back in history records discussion about transplantation," he said, " but I stuck with the work on transplants."

Dr. Murray is intrigued with a present-day transplant phenomenon. "We don't know why but when multiple tissues, say a limb with bone and muscle and tissue, are transplanted, each of the elements seem to aid in the healing rate of other elements at far greater rates than for skin transplant alone. Skin transplant alone is never permanent.

"If I were a young doctor, that's where I'd concentrate. That work will be fruitful for 50 or 80 years," he said.

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Asked to identify future medical breakthroughs, he invoked novelist George Eliot:

"Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error."

But he is certain about the value of stem cell research. "The possibilities are fantastic but scientists have an obligation to society to behave ethically. They cannot sacrifice embryos needlessly," he said, adding that opponents of stem cell research are misguided.

"Anything that stifles human creativity will fail. The role of science in seeking the truth involves the application of science to ethics," he concluded.