How World War II led to organ transplants, and other life-saving inventions

Dr Joseph Murray, who has died at the age of 93, may never have pioneered organ transplants without the bloody battles of World War II. But war also led to plastic surgery, vaccines and better use of antibiotics.

He spent a lifetime trying to save lives - but Dr Joseph Murray, who has died at the age of 93, may never have pioneered organ transplants without the bloody battles of World War II.

The Nobel prize-winning surgeon learned his craft by performing skin grafts on horrifically burned soldiers returning to the U.S. after the June 1944 D-Day landings.

Dr Murray, who served as a First Lieutenant, realised the common rejection of tissue might pose a problem with organ transplants as well.

He later began experimenting by transplanting kidneys on dogs and human twins, who are perfect donor matches.

In 1962, he performed the first successful kidney transplant using a kidney from a donor unrelated to his patient with the use of immunosuppressive drugs.

Dr Murray’s medical innovation is just one of many lifesaving techniques that were born out of the competition to kill.

World War II was a seminal conflict for medical progress – because the rapid pace of weapons development forced doctors to keep up and find new treatments.

The advance of penicillin was perhaps the greatest life-saving innovation.


Despite being discovered in 1928 by Briton Sir Alexander Fleming, it was only made into an effective anti-biotic during the war.

At the end of the conflict in 1945, scientists had perfected techniques to cultivate the drug - it was 20 times more effective than it had been at the beginning in 1939. It was especially effective in dealing with gangrene.

By treating once deadly infections, penicillin is today estimated to have saved 200million lives – almost three times the number who died in the war.

Vaccines for 10 infections – including influenza, pneumococcal pneumonia and the plague – were also developed during this confrontation.

World War II also saw the advance of plastic surgery.

New Zealander Archibald McIndoe performed revolutionary new skin grafts on Royal Air Force servicemen.

Thanks to him burns victims are today also treated with saline solution after he discovered that skin healed quicker on pilots who crashed into salty sea water.

The fight against the Nazis also prompted ground-breaking advances were also made in treating sight.

Ukrainian Vladimir Filatov pioneered eye transplants and is credited with saving the sight of legendary Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev’s sight during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Soldiers were also immunised against tetanus for the first time and Australians discovered the best way to ward off malaria in the jungle.

But World War II is not the only conflict to fast track the development of medicine.

The First World War, which was the first truly mechanised confrontation, prompted enormous advances in hospitals.

Notably, the triage system of prioritising mass casualties was formalised by French doctors.

Those who would most benefit from treatment were selected ahead of those likely to live and those likely to die regardless.

Battlefield blood transfusions also became possible during this world war, although the system of storing and distributing was perfected during the second.

Between 1914 and 1918, British neurologist Sir Gordon Holmes also paved the way for the modern treatment of head wounds and modern brain surgery.

Another medical pioneer of World War I was New Zealander Sir Harold Gillies, who is considered by many as the father of plastic surgery.

Since these catastrophic two world wars, medicine has continued to advance on the battlefield.

Korea gave us the first air ambulance service and Vietnam allowed major advances in vascular surgery.

And the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have already led to changes public health services.
Victims of knife attacks are now often given enormous doses of plasma en route to Few would argue that carnage of conflict is a price worth paying. But modern medicine would certainly have developed far less without the tragedy of war.