50th anniversary of first UK live donor kidney transplant

One of the UK’s first transplant patients returned to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh yesterday (thurs) to mark the 50th anniversary of the lifesaving surgery.

Linda Phillips, who was just nine-years-old when she underwent the procedure, marked the major medical milestone with NHS Lothian and Edinburgh University.

The 53-year-old met up with clinicians past and present to remember the breakthrough operation which earned the RIE a place in history.

She said:

 “It is really important to mark the anniversary because that operation has helped change so many lives, including mine. Without it, they would not have been able to continue progressing and I wouldn’t be here today.”

Identical twins Lewis and Martin Abbott, 49, underwent the first procedure of its kind in Britain on October 30th 1960.

Martin agreed to donate an organ to his brother who had been diagnosed with irreversible kidney failure.

The pair along with the late lead surgeon Professor Michael Woodruff and his dedicated team, including senior registrar at the time Dr Bernard Nolan, changed the face of modern medicine.

Dr Nolan carried the organ from the donor into the neighbouring theatre
and then assisted Professor Woodruff to perform the transplant procedure.

He said:

 “It was a truly memorable day. We had the entire unit to ourselves. I assisted with the first operation to remove the kidney from the donor and then had the task of carrying it through to the recipient before I assisted Professor Woodruff with the second operation on the recipient.

“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life watching the recipient grow back to full strength.”

The operation was hailed a huge success across the UK and the twins returned to their normal lives within weeks. They lived for six years before they died from unrelated disease.

Dr Anne Lambie, who was a lecturer in therapeutics at the time and helped with the pre-operative treatment of the recipient, said:

“The operation was the beginning of things to come and it was very exciting for all of us to be involved.
“It was a breakthrough. The team was the first to perform the procedure in the UK and it was fascinating for us to watch Lewis get better and be given his life back, although he seemed to take it all in his stride.”

The operation started a new chapter in transplant medicine and within a year the second operation had taken place.

Between October 1960 and December 1974, 127 patients had undergone a renal transplant. By 1981, more than 100 of the patients still survived at a time when kidney failure treatment was nowhere near as advanced as today and many patients died.

The 50th anniversary comes as NHS Lothian launches its own campaign to increase the number of registered organ donors in Lothian.

The health board is teaming up with big businesses, organisations, colleges and universities to encourage more people to join “Sign up and save a life”.

A dedicated website has been created and donors can also join up by texting “fifty” on their mobile phone to number 61661.

Consultant transplant surgeon John Forsythe, of the Transplant Unit at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and national lead transplant surgeon, said the 50th anniversary was an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of organ donation.

He added:

 “This is a vitally important date in Scottish and UK history because it marked a brand new era in medicine.
“The bravery of the twins and the work of Woodruff and his team showed that we could overcome the surgical problems of transplant and since then we have gradually overcome many of the problems of rejection.This means that transplant is now one of the most successful modern procedures
“Since that first operation, there have been further significant medical advances.  We can transplant between people who do not have good tissue matching, such as spouse to spouse or “stranger” donation. The donor operation has also changed completely and now most kidneys are removed by “keyhole surgery”.

Cabinet Secretary Nicola Sturgeon urged more people to remember the anniversary by joining the register.

She said:

 “Transplants transform lives and it’s amazing how far the procedures have advanced in the 50 years since these pioneering operations were carried out in Edinburgh.
“Many people have huge reason to be grateful for the skill and vision of these early surgeons, as well as the bravery of their patients. But the reality is that many more lives could be saved if more organs were available. That’s why I would urge everyone to sign up to the organ donor register, if they haven’t already done so. It only takes a second, but it could save a life.”


Case study 1

Linda became one of the earliest success stories in 1967 after her mum Marie stepped forward to donate her kidney.

She had been diagnosed two years earlier with an infection that was attacking her kidneys and eventually doctors told her parents she was unlikely to pull through without surgery.

Mother and daughter underwent the procedure in January 5th 1967 and it was an immediate success.

Linda began recovering almost immediately, while her mum also made a complete recovery.

She said:
“I never knew that my mum was donating a kidney until afterwards. They didn’t want to upset me. The change in my health was overnight. I became so much healthier in hours.
“I was kept in isolation for five weeks just to ensure that I didn’t pick up an infection. I remember that being really tough. The nurses and doctors had to take a shower before coming into my room and as they left. There was a glass corridor by my room and my mum and dad would watch me from there. They were not allowed into my room.
“I was called a “miracle girl” at the time and my life was changed forever. I never had to dialyse again.”

Linda went on to get married and have children, a boy and a girl, and lived a normal life for 35 years, while her mum lived a long and healthy life until she was 85.

Linda is now back on dialysis after the transplant eventually failed after 35 years and is on the list for a second transplant, but she said it was to be expected.

Linda added:

 “Doctors thought I was not going to survive when I was a child and the fact that I have lived for 43 years is incredible.
“I will need another transplant, but I always knew that would happen. It was only expected that the transplant would have lasted between five and 15 years. I am just determined to get on with life though and not let illness hold me back.”


Case study 2

Mary Cunningham underwent a kidney transplant when she was a teenager. She had suffered problems since she was small because one of her kidneys had not grown properly.

She was put on the transplant list and in 1965, when she was 14 an organ was found to be a perfect match for both blood and tissue compatibility.

She said:

 “I was in hospital for a long time. It was around six months, but the operation changed my life and I felt a lot better almost instantly.
“It worked well for a long time – it was 18 years in total and helped transform my quality of life.”

In early 1984, Mary’s health began to deteriorate and she went back onto haemodialysis for just over two years before receiving another organ in 1986.

Mary has gone on to suffer from other health complaints, including some that were from the results of early medication used post-operatively, but her kidney is still functioning.