The Man Who Lost His Face

As doctors start performing face transplants, it's ironic that the story of human organ transplantation began with a man who lost his face. On Dec. 23, 1944, a 22-year-old pilot named Charles Woods taxied down a runway in Kurmitola, India, carrying 28,000 pounds of aviation fuel. The plane exploded on takeoff. Woods survived, but suffered severe burns over 70 percent of his body. The fire erased his face, destroying his nose, eyelids and ears.

No one had ever lived with such severe burns, but Woods had an indomitable will. Six weeks after his accident, he arrived at Valley Forge General Hospital, an Army hospital in Pennsylvania where I was stationed. He was still clinging to life. Woods needed new skin, and in desperation, we took the skin from a recently deceased soldier, with his family's permission, and draped it onto Woods. This "foreign" skin normally would have been rejected by Woods's immune system within 10 to 14 days--too soon for his own skin to grow back. However, possibly because of his debilitated condition, his immune response had been tamed. The new skin survived for more than a month--buying Woods just enough time to save his life.

Over the next two years, we operated 24 times to build Woods a new face--a new nose, eyelids and ears--but he still looked like no one you have ever seen. When we were through, Woods looked in the mirror, walked out into the world, raised a family and built successful businesses. He died in 2004.

I returned from the war and resumed my surgical training in the repair of faces misshapen by injury and disease. I also joined a team at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital dedicated to attempting kidney transplantation as a treatment for kidney failure. Many thought organ transplantation could never work because the patient's immune system was likely to reject a transplanted organ. But I knew something had tamed Woods's immune system. So transplantation did not seem a futile quest to me.

After several years developing the necessary techniques, I learned about a 22-year-old man, Richard Herrick, who was dying of kidney failure, and who had an identical twin brother, Ronald, with two healthy kidneys. A kidney from an identical twin would not be rejected as "foreign." So, on Dec. 23, 1954--10 years to the day after Charles Woods was burned--we performed the first human organ transplantation from a living donor. Later advances made transplantation successful among people who were not identical twins.

Last year I helped light the torch at the 2004 Transplant Games in the Minneapolis Metrodome. More than 2,000 competitors were on the field, all of them with a transplanted organ. And all of them with a debt to a man who lost his face, but not his will to live.