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Borrowing Life

Borrowing Life: How Scientists, Surgeons, and a War Hero Made the First Successful Organ Transplant

Shelley Fraser Mickle
Imagine
2020
288 pp.
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Borrowing Life by Shelley Fraser Mickle tells the story of the pioneering 20th-century surgeons, scientists, and patients who made organ transplantation a reality. Although the book’s primary focus is on kidney transplantation, Charles Woods—a young pilot who, in 1944, was severely burned in an airplane accident and unexpectedly survived with the aid of donor skin grafts—takes center stage in the first half of the story.

Joe Murray, the surgeon who treated Charles, and one of the central figures in Mickle’s book, would go on to join a team of talented physicians under the supervision of surgeon Francis Moore, where he drew on immunologist Peter Medawar’s animal studies to successfully execute the first human kidney transplant in identical twins in 1954. Mickle recounts how the subsequent application of the team’s technique using unrelated donors gradually became feasible with careful calibration of immunosuppression.

Although Mickle met both Murray and Moore decades before writing this book, Borrowing Life draws primarily from archival documents, including memoirs written by the participants and contemporaneous news coverage. It is written in an informal style, as a series of disparate anecdotes that gradually converge on a single story.

Mickle makes an unusual narrative decision, framing the medical tale with the love stories of the key participants (Woods, Murray, Moore, and Medawar) and their wives. Her attempt to recognize the efforts and personal costs incurred by women with history-making husbands is appreciated, as many biographies take such sacrifices for granted. Unfortunately, the execution of this strategy often falls flat because Mickle offers few details about the wives’ actual contributions. Nevertheless, the book presents a set of compelling stories that may be eye-opening for readers who have grown up in a time when organ transplantation is taken for granted.

About the author

The reviewer is a senior editor at Science.