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Evergreen Park’s Little Company of Mary was site of a major medical advance in 1950

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Edmund Lawler holds a copy of a book he wrote about doctors who transplanted a kidney into a patient at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park in 1950. (Edmund Lawler)

Edmund Lawler’s new book about doctors who pioneered a kidney transplant in 1950 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park begins with an account about how the procedure has been largely forgotten.

Lawler describes how visitors to a Chicago-area display that documents milestones in organ transplant history are often surprised to learn of the event.

“That can’t possibly be right,” Lawler quotes a source as saying. “I’ve never heard about that, and I’m from Chicago.”

The historic event seems even more astonishing 71 years later because of where it occurred. One would expect doctors to achieve the first procedure of such magnitude at a major research center in Boston or Paris, or perhaps one of Chicago’s big university hospitals.

“They are amazed the transplant took place at a community hospital like Little Company — better known for delivering babies than for originating medical breakthroughs,” Lawler writes.

Lawler’s captivating introduction draws readers into “The Graft: How a Pioneering Operation Sparked the Modern Age of Organ Transplants.” Publisher Anthem Press of London provided a copy for review.

“I’m glad to be able to tell the story because it’s been lost to history,” Lawler, 68, said during a telephone interview from his home in New Buffalo, Michigan.

Readers may recognize the surname. I have written columns about Edmund Lawler’s uncle, Jerry Lawler of Palos Heights, a retiree who wrote a delightful memoir about his career as a commercial pilot for TWA.

Good writing runs in the family. Edmund Lawler teaches journalism at DePaul University. He was an editor and reporter at various newspapers and worked for Crain’s and The Associated Press. He previously has written six business books.

“The Graft” is a family affair. Lawler told me he decided to tackle the topic after his uncle encouraged him for years to write the book. One of the two main doctors profiled in the nonfiction account is the late Richard Lawler, who was Jerry Lawler’s uncle and great uncle of Edmund.

The other physician instrumental in the procedure was the late James West, who later developed drug and alcohol addiction treatments at the Betty Ford Center in California.

Another main character is the patient, Ruth Tucker. She was 44 years old in 1950 and was dying of a genetic kidney disease. At the time, researchers were making strides in the development of dialysis as a treatment, but it would be many more years before dialysis equipment became widely available.

Author Edmund Lawler's book, "The Graft: How a Pioneering Operation Sparked the Modern Age of Organ Transplants," is about a 1950 event at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

“The Graft” summarizes historic attempts at organ transplantation leading up to the event on June 17, 1950 at Little Company of Mary. A Ukrainian surgeon in 1933 grafted a kidney to the outside of a patient’s thigh, but the recipient died within 48 hours.

Doctors in 1950 had figured out that donors and recipients had to have matching blood types. However, they had not yet cracked the code of tissue compatibility.

The human body’s immune system attacks foreign material and wants to reject organs from another person. Today, organ recipients take medications for the rest of their lives to suppress their immune systems. But in 1950, immunotherapy was in its infancy.

Doctors Lawler and West wanted to inspire medical colleagues around the world to bear down and solve the organ rejection challenges by demonstrating that at the very least, the technical aspects of the operation could be conducted successfully, Lawler wrote. Human arteries and vessels could function after being carefully stitched together, they wanted to show. They also wanted to extend Tucker’s life for as long as possible.

“Lawler’s bold venture encouraged surgeons in Paris and Boston to start attempting kidney transplants since Lawler’s technical side of connecting the kidney had gone well,” according to “The Graft.”

Kidneys filter blood and produce urine. Humans have two kidneys but only need one. Lawler and West grafted a kidney into Tucker from a patient who died of liver disease — not an ideal donor.

Lawler’s account addresses debate over whether the controversial 1950 event in Evergreen Park was the world’s first successful human transplant of a vital organ.

Dr. Richard Lawler performed a pioneering kidney transplant operation in 1950 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. - Original Credit: Edmund Lawler

“I would maintain that my Uncle Richard’s was the first,” Lawler told me.

Perhaps the most celebrated organ transplant occurred in 1967, when Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human heart transplant in South Africa.

If one searches the internet for information about the world’s first successful kidney transplant, only a few sources mention the 1950 operation at Little Company. Most, including the National Kidney Foundation and the Guinness Book of World Records, credit Boston doctor Joseph Murray for achieving the milestone in 1954.

Murray solved the genetic rejection barrier by transplanting a kidney from a healthy 23-year-old into the abdomen of a twin brother who was dying of kidney disease. The recipient lived another eight years before succumbing to his kidney ailment. Murray was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine many years later.

Tucker, the patient at Little Company, lived for nearly five years before dying of heart disease. But her new kidney survived less than a year. Two months after the June procedure, Lawler inspected the organ during a checkup and it looked fine. However, 10 months after the procedure, the new kidney had shrunk to the size of a walnut.

Doctors believed the implanted kidney allowed one of Tucker’s own kidneys to regain functionality, which served her until she died.

Lawler’s fascinating account delves into the controversy surrounding the 1950 procedure. Little Company was a Catholic hospital run by a religious order, and the nun in charge gave Lawler and West permission to conduct the procedure.

News of the historic procedure leaked to the press, and Chicago newspapers ran front-page stories. Reporters tried to gain access to Tucker’s hospital room.

“There was a lot of attention,” Lawler told me. “Then I think when Dr. Murray’s identical twins surgery came along I think that sort of papered over what had happened four years before.”

After the 1950 surgery, Lawler and West faced a backlash of criticism from clergy and fellow medical professionals. Some said it was reckless to attempt while barriers of tissue compatibility and immune system rejection remained. Others accused them of “playing God,” or being like Dr. Frankenstein and desecrating a corpse.

Today the Catholic Church embraces organ donation as a gift of life. But in 1950 there was divisive ethical and moral debate on the topic.

“I was shocked. I had always assumed Richard Lawler was hailed as a hero, maybe somewhat ignored as the years went on,” Edmund Lawler said. “But you have to have these type of incremental moments in medical history. Somebody’s got to take that risk.”

Lawler said he believes his great uncle was more interested in science than fame.

“When you rock the boat, when you try something radically different, I suppose you should be ready for the pushback,” he said.

Sometimes we forget that people who achieve greatness often stand on the shoulders of giants. For example, we all know Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. But fewer know that a few years earlier, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space. A high school in Palos Heights is named for Shepard.

Just as Armstrong’s achievement would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by Shepard and others, Lawler and West were pioneers who paved the way for generations of medical professionals who have saved and extended countless lives.

“I think Uncle Richard deserved much more credit than he’s gotten over the years,” Lawler said. “That’s all been forgotten. Perhaps the book will remind people of a pioneering effort in 1950.”

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