The sad news that Dr. Joseph E. Murray of Boston had died on 26 November brought back many personal memories of a medical giant whose surgical expertise rose to the level of his Catholic faith. A Nobel Laureate in 1990, he shared the prize for completing the very first human kidney transplant. His lifetime’s work included transplant surgery involving kidneys, hearts, lungs and livers.
I was privileged to meet Dr. Murray in February 1992 at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the 10 hospitals usually cited as America’s best. The occasion was a lecture on transplant surgery featuring Dr. Murray in the amphitheatre. I had been invited as the other member of the presentation team; Dr. Murray did the medical lecture, while I surveyed the ethical aspects, certain of which had recently been carefully set forth by Pope John Paul II.
For me, of course, the event was among the most rewarding of my priestly ministry. To be on the same platform as Dr. Murray – the honor was overwhelming. And as it happened, he had just returned from Rome, where he and Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the geneticist who was denied the Nobel Prize because of his solid critique of abortion, had met with Pope John Paul II. (After addressing an office of the United Nations organization in New York, Professor Lejeune wrote in a note to his wife, "Today I lost the Nobel Prize" – an award he should have received for his work in genetics, especially his discovering the source of Down syndrome.)
Following Dr. Murray’s talk at Massachusetts General, he and I entered into a personal discussion regarding monozygotic twins. He suggested that he and I, plus Professor Lejeune, could get together, perhaps at Harvard University, or else in Hartford, to examine the subject more deeply. I, of course, pledged to study some dimensions of the topic, and referred these aspects to an academic acquaintance expert in metaphysics. I then sent him a preliminary paper.
Later, early in March 1994, I received a response from Dr. Murray. (He was the Nobel Laureate, of course; I was simply a messenger seeking knowledge.) In the same letter, Dr. Murray recalled "meeting Professor Jerome Lejeune, of Paris, at the Vatican recently, and we discussed the subject also." Dr. Murray concluded his letter with the hope that he could integrate Professor Lejeune’s ideas along with my thoughts on the topic in order "to formulate" his own "thinking more clearly on the matter." (I heard Professor Lejeune lecture at the Vatican in November 1988.)
Our hopes were dashed when, some brief years later, Professor Lejeune was called home to be with Christ forever (as St. Paul defined death). A letter from Dr. Murray, dated 24 March 1997, recalled Professor Lejeune’s death. Dr. Murray had spoken to him about our question, he said, but "his health was failing, and we never did have a chance to complete our discussion before he died." And again he – the Nobel Laureate – suggested that we have lunch, either at Harvard or in Connecticut.
Dr. Murray was a heroic physician who, having attended Holy Cross College in its Golden Age, only grew in his commitment to and zeal for his Catholic faith. Would that he were laboring in our midst today, in this confused, error-ridden and often chaotic bioethical scene, to enlighten and guide us all, both in the science and in the faith of a solid Catholic physician, whose religious beliefs and brilliant art reached from youth right through to his days as an Army physician during World War II, up to the present hour as Director of the Surgical Research Laboratory at Harvard Medical School and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. May his kind increase in number.
By the way, Dr. Murray’s two letters to me have long been framed and are displayed on the walls of my study here at the Transcript’s editorial offices in Bloomfield.
Incidentally, whenever I am drawn to think about Dr. Murray, I automatically think also about Professor Lejeune. Both men were appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Life. Dr. Lejeune was named the first president of the newly established unit. His accomplishments as the world’s greatest geneticist were many. His daughter Clara recalls in Life is a Blessing (Ignatius, 2000) the hostile graffiti on the walls of Paris’s medical school that read, "Lejeune is an assassin. Kill Lejeune!" Even at professional meetings, she notes, he was harassed, often physically.
I also remember the scene that opened John Paul’s last visit to France. The very first stop by the Pope was at Professor Lejeune’s grave. Although John Paul said nothing, preferring to pray in silence, the French press largely excoriated him for daring to stand up for Dr. Lejeune in our preferred culture of death.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.