J. Hartwell Harrison

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J. Hartwell Harrison
Transplant Team.jpg
Left to right, Drs. Harrison, Merrill and Murray
Born (1909-02-16)February 16, 1909
Clarksville, Virginia
Died January 20, 1984(1984-01-20) (aged 74)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Fields urology
Known for kidney transplant

John Hartwell Harrison (February 16, 1909 – January 20, 1984)[1] performed the first vital human organ removal for transplant to another; this was a pivotal undertaking as a member of the medical team that received the 1961 Amory Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for bringing kidney transplantation to the world.

Family, education and training[edit]

Dr. Harrison was born in Clarksville, Virginia, the son of Rosalie S. and I. Carrington Harrison, M.D.;[2] he was reared in Danville, Virginia and graduated at the University of Virginia with a bachelor of science degree in 1929, and an M.D. in 1932. After an internship in internal medicine at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio he pursued postgraduate training in surgery at the Peter Bent Brigham (now Brigham and Women's) Hospital in Boston. He joined the Brigham staff in 1939, was made head of its Division of Urology in 1941, and made Brookline, MA his permanent home with his wife and four children. During World War II, he served in the United States Army Medical Corps in the Pacific Theater of Operations.[3]

First kidney transplant[edit]

Dr. Harrison, Joseph E. Murray, John P. Merrill and others achieved the first successful kidney transplant, between identical twins Ronald and Richard Herrick, in December 1954 at the Brigham Hospital. Dr. Harrison's primary role was to remove the kidney of the donor (Ronald) in this premier transplant collaboration. Dr. Murray received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this and later work.[3]

According to Murray's Nobel Lecture, the surgery which Dr. Harrison performed on the donor was itself distinctly historic in that it was the first time a patient was subjected to an operation which was not for his own benefit. The decision to proceed was made after consultation with clergy and others who carefully scrutinized the ethical aspects.[4] An extraordinary burden was inherently imposed upon Dr. Harrison in the care of his healthy patient, whereas the surgeon for the transplant recipient was operating on a patient otherwise doomed to die, and the nephrologist had no ability to cure this terminally ill patient.[4]

Dr. Murray in his lecture also related the following exchange between Dr. Harrison and his patient: "At the conclusion of our last pre-operative discussion, the donor asked whether the hospital would be responsible for his health care for the rest of his life if he decided to donate his kidney. Dr. Harrison said, 'Of course not.' But he immediately, and sympathetically, followed with the question, 'Ronald, do you think anyone in this room would ever refuse to take care of you if you needed any medical help?' Ronald paused, and then understood that his future depended upon our sense of professional responsibility rather than on legal assurances." Ronald consented on this basis and the transplant proceeded.[4]

Upon completion of the surgical procedures, the transplanted kidney immediately assumed normal function in the recipient; the transplant recipient survived for eight years and died in 1962 of complications from his original chronic nephritis. The donor died in December of 2010 of unrelated causes.

Associations, awards and publications[edit]

The First Kidney Transplant - Medical Team & Patients - From left: Recipient Transplant Surgeon Joseph E. Murray, Recipient Patient Richard Herrick, Nephrologist John P. Merrill, Donor Patient Ronald Herrick and Donor Transplant Surgeon J. Hartwell Harrison (Boston MA, 1954)

In 1971, Dr. Harrison received the Purkinje Medal from Czechoslovakia. In May 1983, he was awarded the Keyes Medal from the American Assn. of Genito-Urinary Surgeons, arguably the highest American honor in the field of urology.[3]

He served as Elliott Cutler Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and held honorary degrees from Harvard and from Roger Williams College. He was named the 1976 Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and made a member of the Irish Urological Society and the British Assn. of Urological Surgeons. He authored over 140 articles and monographs on urologic and general surgery, and other medical issues, and was Editor of the three-volume reference text, Campbell's Urology (4th ed., 1978).[3]

He served as President of the Boston Surgical Society, Vice President of the American Surgical Assn., and for eight years was a member of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. Dr. Harrison was also a urologic consultant to the Air Force and the Veterans Administration.[3]



  • Dr. J. Hartwell Harrison-Urologic Surgeon, The Boston Globe, Jan. 21, 1984.
  • Harrison, J. Hartwell ed. (1978) Campbell's Urology, 4th ed., Saunders.
  • Harrison, J. Houston (1975). Settlers by the Long Grey Trail. Genealogical Publ. Co. 
  • Joint Ventures, Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Spring 2004.
  • Murray, Joseph E., Nobel Lecture: The First Successful Organ Transplants in Man, Nobel Foundation (1990), Retrieved December 20, 2010.
  • Perspectives, Harvard Medical School Quarterly, Winter 1985.
  • Letter to the Urology Surgeon (1963), [1] in Brigham and Women's Hospital Time Capsule Tuesday (2013), [2]