The Graft

The Graft

How a Pioneering Operation Sparked the Modern Age of Organ Transplants

By Edmund O. Lawler

The Graft provides insight into a long-forgotten kidney transplant that helped spark the modern age of organ transplantation.

Hardback, 250 Pages


August 2021

£21.99, $29.95

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About This Book

In a community hospital in suburban Chicago run by Catholic nuns, surgeons performed an operation never done in the world before. The team at the Little Company of Mary Hospital led by Richard Lawler transplanted a kidney in 1950 from a just-deceased woman into the abdominal cavity of a 44-year-old woman.

Critics in the medical community called the operation irresponsible because immunosuppressant drugs that prevent the rejection of a transplanted organ had yet to be developed. Some Catholic clergy considered the transplant sacrilegious because it “desecrated” the sacred body of a dead woman when her kidney was removed. Yet the nuns who ran the hospital blessed the procedure.

Lawler said time alone would judge its success. Seventy years later, that transplant is largely lost to history—overshadowed by remarkable transplant surgeries and medical breakthroughs that have made life-saving kidney and other organ transplants almost routine. The book throws light on a seminal moment in medical history, offering new insights into the early days of human organ transplantation while also looking at the current national kidney crisis.


“The Graft is a warmly written account of the kidney transplant performed in 1950 at a small Catholic hospital (Little Company of Mary) in Chicago by a team of skilled doctors. The case, subsequently reported in JAMA, involved a patient with polycystic kidney disease who experienced early graft function followed by rejection within months but maintained adequate native renal function to live another five years. The lead surgeon, Richard Lawler, did not perform additional transplants, but this index case prompted both support and criticism from the medical and ethical communities, perhaps spurring academic medical centers to develop an immunological basis for transplantation. The history of this case is explained in medical laymen’s language and provides more thorough documentation of the details than previously published.

The story of that particular transplant and the people and institution involved is followed by discussion of the medical and ethical considerations of transplantation, and a sample of transplant surgeon stories, and a summary of some of the historical policy developments in transplantation that followed. It is of particular interest that a Catholic hospital in Chicago in 1950, run by nuns, provided the institutional support for a highly innovative surgical procedure for the time. The narrative is engaging and personal, written by a relative of the surgeon Lawler.” — Stuart J. Knechtle, M.D., William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Surgery, Executive Director, Duke Transplant Center

Author Information

Edmund O. Lawler is a journalist, an author and a journalism instructor at DePaul University in Chicago.


No series for this title.

Table of Contents

Introduction; Chapter 1: The Moment; Chapter 2: The First Transplant; Chapter 3: The Pioneers; Chapter 4: The Operation; Chapter 5: The Backlash; Chapter 6: The Kidney Crisis; Chapter 7: The Transplant Patients; Chapter 8: The Transplant Surgeons; Chapter 9: The Transplant Center; Afterword.


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