Thomas E. Starzl Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Issue Date: 
May 19, 2014

Thomas E. Starzl, Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery, University of Pittsburgh, known as the “Father of Transplantation,” has been elected to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Election to the academy recognizes distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

Starzl’s career accomplishments in transplantation surgery and immunology are legendary. He performed the first successful liver transplantation in 1967. He is credited with developing kidney transplantation into an effective procedure, and he performed the first heart-liver transplant in 1984. He also introduced four commonly used immunosuppressive drugs for clinical transplantation, establishing a foundation for successful immune-system management and drug-regimen strategies in the transplantation of all kinds of organs.

The latest in a long list of awards, honors, and accolades, the NAS induction affirms the surgical pioneer’s place in history books and medical journals alike.

The NAS, a private, nonprofit society of scholars established by the U.S. Congress in 1863 to provide advice to the government about scientific and technologic matters, announced last week the election of 84 new members and 21 foreign associates from 15 countries.

“I always have felt privileged to be part of a university faculty that also includes Dr. Starzl,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “His pioneering work in the field of organ transplantation dramatically expanded available treatment options and saved countless lives. His work has also played a critical role in building Pitt’s reputation as one of the preeminent research institutions in the world.”

“Dr. Starzl’s contributions to science and medicine are extraordinary,” said Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine. “He is a physician-scientist of the highest caliber who is highly deserving of NAS membership.”

Starzl performed the world’s first human liver transplant in 1963 and the first such successful transplant in 1967 at the University of Colorado. In 1980, he advanced the field another step when he introduced the anti-rejection medications anti-lymphocyte globulin and cyclosporine, which would become the accepted transplant regimen given to patients with liver, kidney, and heart failure.

In 1981, Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and led the team of surgeons who performed the city’s first liver transplant. Thirty liver transplants were performed that year, launching the University’s liver transplant program—the only one in the nation at the time—and invigorating the University’s heart and kidney transplant programs. In 1982, Starzl established the clinical utility of cyclosporine and, in 1989, he introduced the anti-rejection medication FK-506, which markedly increased survival rates for liver and other organ transplants and led the way to other successful types of organ transplants, including pancreas, lung, and intestine.

Since retiring from clinical and surgical service in 1991, Starzl has remained active in research, mapping the relationship between donor and recipient cells and developing new therapeutic strategies to achieve immune tolerance after transplantation.

Recently, his papers, photos, videos, and other professional materials were made available on a web-based archive at His many other honors include the Medawar Prize (1992), recognized as the world’s highest award for outstanding contributions in the field of transplantation; the National Medal of Science (2005), a Presidential Award given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences;” and the Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research (2012), which recognizes the contributions of scientists, physicians, and public servants who have made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of human disease. Lasker Awards often presage future recognition by the Nobel committee, so they have become popularly known as “America’s Nobels.”

Starzl joins several other Pitt faculty as members of the NAS, including anthropologist Robert Drennan in the School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine’s Patrick Moore, Yuan Chang, Peter Strick, Angela Gronenborn, and Susan Amara.