Roy Calne, pioneering British organ transplant surgeon, dies at 93

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 life-saving procedure for millions of people around the world, died Jan. 6 at a nursing home in Cambridge, England. He was 93 years old.

His son Russell Calne said he died of heart failure.

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

The son of a car mechanic from suburban London, Dr Calne had long wondered why damaged organs, such as faulty carburettors, could not be replaced with new ones. But as a student in the early 1950s, he was repeatedly told that this could never be achieved.

He persevered, however, carrying out research in his spare time as an instructor of anatomy at the University of Oxford, and then as professor and first chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Cambridge.

It was hard. Often working on pigs and dogs, almost all of which died shortly after surgery, Dr. Calne drew the ire of animal rights activists. Someone – he suspected it was an activist – once planted a bomb on his doorstep; Dr. Calne called the authorities, who detonated it safely.

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

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

However, organ transplants remain rare and dangerous. Then, in the early 1970s, Dr. Calne discovered a new drug, cyclosporine. He and his team began testing its immunosuppressive applications and realized the drug could be the cheap and effective solution they were looking for.

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

Dr. Calne continued to perfect his craft and achieve significant milestones in surgery. In 1986, working with fellow surgeon John Wallwork, he performed the 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 the Lasker Prize, the most prestigious prize in medicine after the Nobel.

When asked by the New York Times that year if he hoped to also receive the Nobel, Dr. Calne replied: “I have a patient, and it’s been 38 years since his transplant. He just returned from a 150-mile bike ride through the mountains. This is my reward.

Roy Yorke Calne was born on 30 December 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 servicemen returning from the Second World War, and many were ten years older than him .

Halfway through his studies, he was assigned to care for a young patient dying of kidney failure. When the patient asked why he couldn’t just receive a new kidney, Dr. Calne recalled, the senior doctors laughed at him.

“Well, I always tended to hate being told something couldn’t be done,” he told the Times in 2012.

He graduated in 1952, then served three years in the army, mainly in Southeast Asia, where British colonial forces were waging a guerrilla war in what is now Malaysia.

He married Patricia Whelan in 1956. With their son Russell, she survives him, as does 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 took on a series of short-term teaching posts while resuming his medical training and beginning his own research into transplantation.

After Oxford, he worked as a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital and received a fellowship at the 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 was granted emeritus status. After retiring, he devoted more 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 may have been an amateur, but his paintings received widespread critical acclaim. In 1991, the Barbican Center in London held an exhibition of his work entitled “The Gift of Life”.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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