The horrifying story of how we learned to keep organs alive outside the body

Organ transplantation is one of the success stories of modern medicine. Around 139,000 transplants are performed annually across the world. One of the most recent success stories is a double-lung transplant for a patient with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in China.

Successful organ donation is a fairly recent phenomenon, still only decades old. The first successful kidney transplant was performed by a group of surgeons led by Dr Joseph Murray in Boston in 1954 between the identical Herrick twins – the recipient lived for eight years.

But the story does not really begin there. As a concept, transplantation of body parts can be seen as early at the third century, with the Arabian physicians Cosmos and Damien depicted in several famous paintings “successfully” transplanting an entire leg.

But in order for transplants to be medically viable, scientists first had to work out how to preserve them. At this time it was unknown that without a means of preserving an organ when removed from the body, the condition rapidly deteriorated.