Insights that Echo Beyond the Echo Chamber

Health Fitness

Roy Calne, Pioneering British Organ-Transplant Surgeon, Dies at 93

Roy Calne, a British surgeon whose work on organ transplantation helped turn what was once considered impossible into a lifesaving procedure for millions of people around the world, died on Jan. 6 at a retirement home in Cambridge, England. He was 93.

His son Russell Calne said he died from heart failure.

There are groundbreaking surgeons and groundbreaking researchers, but very few people are both. Dr. Calne (pronounced “kahn”) was an exception: He developed and practiced many of the operating techniques involved in transplantation, while at the same time working to identify what drugs would get the body to accept a new organ.

The son of an automobile mechanic from the suburbs of London, Dr. Calne had long wondered why damaged organs, like faulty carburetors, couldn’t be swapped out for new ones. But as a student in the early 1950s, he was told repeatedly that it could never be done.

He persevered, though, researching in his spare time as an anatomy instructor at the University of Oxford and later as a professor and the first chairman of the surgery department at the University of Cambridge.

It was rough going. Often working on pigs and dogs, almost all of which died soon after surgery, Dr. Calne drew the ire of animal rights advocates. Someone — he suspected an activist — once left a bomb on his doorstep; Dr. Calne called the authorities, who safely detonated it.

Early on, he used whole-body radiation to suppress the immune response, a procedure that killed virtually all his subjects, including some humans. He eventually switched to using medication, starting with a leukemia drug called 6-mercaptopurine.

He performed the first successful liver transplant in Europe in 1968, one year after Thomas E, Starzl, a surgeon in the United States, completed the world’s first such procedure.

Still, organ transplantation remained rare and dangerous. Then, in the early 1970s, Dr. Calne learned of a new drug, cyclosporine. He and his team began testing its immunosuppressive applications, and realized that the drug could be the cheap and effective solution they’d been looking for.

The one-year survival rate for kidney transplants quickly rose to 80 percent from 50 percent, and by the mid-1980s the number of hospitals worldwide offering transplant surgery had gone from a few dozen to more than 1,000.

Dr. Calne continued to hone his craft and to reach surgical milestones. In 1986, working with a fellow surgeon, John Wallwork, he performed the world’s first liver, heart and lung transplant on the same patient. In 1994 he performed the world’s first six-organ transplant, replacing a patient’s stomach, small intestine, duodenum, pancreas, liver and kidney in a single operation.

In 2012 he and Dr. Starzl shared a Lasker Award, the most prestigious prize in medicine next to the Nobel.

When asked by The New York Times that year whether he hoped to receive the Nobel as well, Dr. Calne replied: “I have a patient, and it’s been 38 years since his transplant. He’s just come back from a 150-mile trek bicycling through the mountains. That’s my reward.”

Roy Yorke Calne was born on Dec. 30, 1930, in Richmond, a suburb about 10 miles west of London, to Eileen (Gubbay) and Joseph Calne.

Roy entered Guy’s Hospital, part of the medical school at King’s College, London, in 1946. Most of his classmates were service members returning from World War II, and many were a decade older than he was.

Halfway through his studies he was assigned to look after a young patient dying from renal failure. When the patient asked why he couldn’t simply receive a new kidney, Dr. Calne recalled, the higher-ranking doctors laughed at him.

“Well, I’ve always tended to dislike being told that something can’t be done,” he told The Times in 2012.

He graduated in 1952, then served three years in the military, mostly in Southeast Asia, where Britain’s colonial forces were fighting a guerrilla war in present-day Malaysia.

He married Patricia Whelan in 1956. Along with their son Russell, she survives him, as do another son, Richard; their daughters, Jane Calne, Debbie Chittenden, Suzie Calne and Sarah Nicholson; 13 grandchildren; and his brother, Donald, a leading expert on Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Calne returned to Britain in 1956. He strung together a series of short-term teaching positions while returning to his medical training and beginning his own research on transplantation.

After Oxford, he worked as a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital and received a fellowship at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston, where the first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1954.

In 1965 Dr. Calne became a professor at Cambridge. He remained there until 1998, when he took emeritus status. After retiring, he dedicated more of his time to his other lifelong passion, painting.

He often painted his patients — with their consent — and in 1988 he took lessons from one of them, the Scottish painter John Bellany.

Dr. Calne might have been an amateur, but his paintings were widely praised by critics. In 1991 the Barbican Center in London mounted an exhibition of his work, entitled “The Gift of Life.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *