“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to always try one more time.” Thomas Edison
March 1, 1963 – University of Colorado Hospital – Denver, Colorado: On a beautiful early spring morning, Dr. Tom Starlz attempted the world’s first human liver transplant. His patient, a 3-year-old boy dying from liver disease, died during the operation. Starlz was criticized by some colleagues – he had killed dogs in his experimental transplant program, and now he was killing children. The criticism stung.
Two months later, Starlz performed the second liver transplant on a man with liver cancer. Starlz gave him large amounts of a special protein to stop the bleeding. The operation appeared successful, but the patient died from complications three weeks later. During the next few months, Starlz tried three more unsuccessful liver transplants, with each patient dying within a few weeks.
Tom Starlz grew up in Le Mars, Iowa, the ice cream capital of the world. His father was a newspaper editor, and his mother was a nurse. As a youth, he worked at his father’s newspaper and earned his Eagle Scout badge. He excelled in the classroom and planned to enter the ministry. However, when his mother died after a difficult battle with breast cancer, Starlz decided to go to medical school.
He earned a B.S. in biology from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, then attended Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. He graduated in 1952 with a Ph.D. in neurophysiology and a medical degree. Before returning to Northwestern as a surgeon, he did surgical residencies at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Miami. Starlz wanted to perform liver transplants, an operation no surgeon had ever tried because of its complexity and possible complications.
In 1958, at Northwestern, Starlz began his first experiments with liver transplants using dogs from the local animal shelter. In the initial operations, all the dogs died within a couple days. After discovering a way to stabilize blood circulation a year later, the dogs lived a few weeks. By 1962 Starlz, having performed more than 200 operations, was successfully performing canine liver transplants in his new job on the medical staff at the University of Colorado in Denver.
Starlz was ready to try the transplant surgery on humans. It was one of the bloodiest, most difﬁcult operations a surgeon could perform. Liver transplants were taboo. No surgeon dared try.
In 1964, after the death of the first five liver transplant patients, the 37-year-old chief of surgery shut down the program. He admitted to hospital executives, “We just failed.” The deaths were almost too much for Starlz. Discouraged and questioning whether he had what it took to be a surgeon, he took some time off and flew to Iowa to visit his father.
Starlz returned to Colorado and performed routine kidney transplants. He could have given up on liver transplants, and none of his colleagues would have blamed him. Successful liver surgery required more failures than they were willing to risk. Starlz was in uncharted territory but obsessed with saving the lives of people with liver disease. He had successfully transplanted livers in dogs and knew it was possible in humans.
In 1968, with improved surgical techniques and a new anti-rejection drug, Starlz performed liver transplants on seven children. Four died within six months; however, three survived long-term, indicating to him that liver transplants were possible.
In the 1970s and 1980s at the University of Colorado and later at the University of Pittsburg, Starlz’s liver transplant program made steady advances in surgery procedures and finding drugs to control liver rejection. Two decades after his first canine liver transplant, 19 of Starlz’s 22 patients survived long-term.
Today thanks to Dr. Tom Starlz’s tenacity, liver transplants are now performed daily worldwide. Surgeons everywhere use the procedures that he tediously pioneered while battling critics. People who once had no hope of survival can now live happy and productive lives.
Until his death in 2017 at age 90, Tom Starlz worked as head of the Thomas E. Starlz Transplantation Institute on the University of Pittsburg campus. Despite often being criticized for his early liver transplant failures, he is acknowledged in the medical world as “The Father of Modern Transplants.”