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Dr. Richard Lawler, Medical Pioneer Who Performed First Organ Transplant At Little Company Of Mary Hospital In 1950, Honored In New Book By Great-Nephew

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The year was 1950, a 44-year-old woman was gravely ill, and a Chicago doctor took an enormous risk to save her life.

That groundbreaking surgery helped usher in a new era of medicine. It is captured in a new book, and as CBS 2's Jim Williams reported Sunday night, the author has a personal connection to the pioneering doctor.

Amid a binder full of research papers and yellowed newspaper clips is the little-known story of Richard Lawler.

"Richard Lawler is my grandfather's older brother, which would make him my great uncle," said Edmund Lawler.

Chicago reporter Edmund Lawler's great uncle Richard was also Dr. Richard Lawler, a surgeon who made medical history. It happened in 1950 - 71 years ago - at Little Company of Mary Hospital Medical Center in Evergreen Park - then called the "baby hospital."

"Post-World War II, of course, there was this huge baby boom on the South Side of Chicago and the rest of the world," Edmund Lawler said, "and I think that's what the hospital is better known for."

The hospital was not known then for groundbreaking medicine. But as Edmund Lawler writes in his new book, "The Graft: How a Pioneering Operation Sparked the Modern Age of Organ Transplants," Dr. Lawler wanted to save the life Ruth Tucker - a 44-year-old Chicago woman who was suffering kidney failure. Kidney dialysis was in its infancy and not available in Chicago.

"Brigham Hospital, a leading hospital in the Boston area that's affiliated with Harvard - they began experimenting with dialysis, but this was late 40s-early 50s. But there was no dialysis beyond Boston - so certainly not in Chicago," said Edmund Lawler. "So dialysis was not an option for Ruth Tucker."

Dr. Lawler, the son of a Bridgeport grocer, was courageous - a military aviator during World War I.

"He was probably willing to take a risk," Edmund Lawler said. "I mean, he was a pilot in these biplanes. I mean, just going up in those things - this was not long after flight was invented."

So in that spirit, Dr. Lawler and his colleagues performed what is considered to be the world's first human organ transplant – a-45 minute operation giving Ruth Tucker a new kidney.

"Immunosuppressant drugs are still in the development; they are a ways off," Edmund Lawler said. "In a sense it was sort of reckless and rogue."

Dr. Lawler was heavily criticized back then. Clergy said he desecrated the body of the kidney donor.

Even some doctors shunned the surgeon.

"He said fellow physicians wouldn't even speak to him because he would contaminate them," Edmund Lawler said.

But that surgery is seen differently today.

"So Jim, it was a groundbreaking procedure," Dr. John Fung told CBS 2's Williams.

Dr. Fung is director of transplant surgery at the University of Chicago. He notes there are now tens of thousands kidney transplants a year around the world.

Dr. Lawler led the way.

"And you know, it showed that it could be done, and I think, you know, other people looked at that and said, 'Well, let's move forward,'" Dr. Fung said.

Ruth Tucker lived another five years and died of heart failure - not kidney disease. Dr. Richard Lawler was eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize, and 20 years after the surgery at an event at Little Company of Mary Medical Center, he was given a standing ovation.

A pioneer indeed. And he is also a source of pride for his great-nephew.

"I think his pioneering efforts were kind of lost to history," Edmund Lawler said. "It was a thrill to help tell the story. I'm proud of what I was able to do."

Dr. Richard Lawler died in 1982. He was 86.

He lived long enough to see organ transplants save countless lives.

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