Kate Womersley

The history of transplants had many false starts

Paul Craddock describes how it took countless gruesome experiments over the centuries before a human kidney was successfully transplanted in 1954

Saints Cosmas and Damian graft the leg of an Ethiopian man on to the stump of the deacon Justinian, in a painting by Jaume Huguet (15th century). [Bridgeman Images]

On watching transplant surgery, I can give prosaic but essential advice: have a good breakfast. Each operation can last 12 hours, and you’re unlikely to get a seat. Relocating a liver that was recently inside someone else is a feat of preparation, choreography and collaboration (with the patient too, who must agree to alcoholic abstinence). However, transplants can also be organised in minutes. Every day, thousands of units of red cells are requested from NHS blood banks and delivered through IV drips with little ceremony. What then actually is a transplant, which moves ‘life itself… from one man’s body into another’s’? Spare Parts edges up against this question, revealing our hopes of both restoration and enhancement.

The evolution of transplantation is a history of false starts. ‘Surgeons almost certainly performed rudimentary skin grafts for millennia,’ writes Paul Craddock, but the official story opens in Renaissance Italy with nose jobs. Whether lost to syphilis or a sword, noses could be re-fashioned from a skin flap taken from the forearm, which would then be strapped to the face for several weeks until both parts healed together. The technique never really took off. We jump next to Paris in the 1660s, where the surgeon Jean-Baptiste Denys performed a live canine blood transfusion on the Pont Neuf. His daring escalated to cross-species infusions using cows, horses and goats.

The first dialysis machine was made from sausage skin, a bathtub and parts of a shot-down German aircraft

Humans were next. Could transfusions from animals correct pathology and even psychology? Blood from lambs, chosen for their ‘innocence’, was recommended as a potential cure for ‘some mad person in the hospital of Bethlem’. While transfusion experiments petered out due to problems of clotting and what we know now as blood-group incompatibility, a new breed of dentists were touting cosmetic transplants.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in