In Memoriam: Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD

Last week, the transplant community lost an icon. At the age of 90, Dr. Thomas Starzl passed away peacefully at his home in Pittsburgh. While he was a transplant legend, he was also a longtime member of AST. In 2006, AST awarded Dr. Starzl with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

There have been countless tributes since Dr. Starzl's passing, noting his incredible accomplishments. For this blog, I have invited Dr. Angus Thomson, Distinguished Professor of Surgery and Immunology from the University of Pittsburgh, to write a guest blog about his memories of Dr. Starzl.

Dr. Thomas Starzl

Since his peaceful passing a few days ago at his home in Pittsburgh, close to the Medical Center, and one week short of his 91st birthday, many fitting tributes have been paid by the leadership of the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. These recognize the unsurpassed, extraordinary and enduring contributions of Tom Starzl to advancement of the fields of transplantation surgery, medicine and immunology. Many tributes will undoubtedly follow worldwide, honoring a truly unique individual and towering giant of our field, who was great in so many ways - a compassionate physician, brilliant investigator, inspirational leader and respected humanitarian. It is largely here at Pitt, that Tom’s extraordinary skill, vision and courage transformed liver transplantation from dream to reality and where innumerable gifted surgeons, physicians, scientists and health care professionals from across the globe were privileged to learn and benefit from his inspirational example. His patients however, were his greatest beneficiaries.

 My initial interaction with Tom was at the first international conference on cyclosporine at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University in 1981, when he described in compelling fashion, the striking improvement in liver transplant survival that he and his team had achieved with this then new experimental immunosuppressive agent. Itself a huge leap, this was just the beginning of the extraordinary series of innovative advances and expansion in clinical organ transplantation both in Pittsburgh and worldwide that was driven by Tom’s genius, investigative power and determination.

Thomas Starzl Later, I was drawn by his introduction of FK506 (tacrolimus) into the clinic (against others’ expectations) and its first use in transplant patients to visit the transplant program in Pittsburgh and very soon thereafter to join its research faculty. The basic, translational and clinical environment under his leadership was large, challenging and enormously exciting, bringing with it the great privilege of interaction with immensely talented colleagues from around the world, most of whom would go on to develop and lead successful clinical transplant and research programs worldwide. It was remarkable how Tom was ever present and could appear in the clinic or lab at any time, - on top of and mostly ahead of the action. His knowledge, deep insights, enthusiasm and impish wit enlivened every interaction. He earned huge respect and displayed great support and loyalty to all those who inevitably gained immensely from working with him. Everyone had their own unique Starzl story.

Tom’s accomplishments and the success of the organ transplant program had a huge impact on the development of Pitt as a center for innovative biomedical research and was the impetus for the creation of the many cutting-edge research facilities that exist today and for the attraction of gifted academic leaders and rising stars, paving the way for the high ranking that the Institution now enjoys today. The Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute stands in memory of the person who has had the greatest impact on our field. It was a great honor and privilege to have known and worked with him.

A Memorial Service for Dr. Starzl will be held in Heinz Chapel on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh on Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.  Doors will open at 12:00 p.m. The service is open to the public.


Angus W. Thomson PhD DSc FAST, is a Distinguished Professor of Surgery & Immunology at the Starzl Transplantation Institute, Department of Surgery, University of Pittsburgh, and a former member of the AST Board of Directors. After being recruited to the University of Pittsburgh in 1990 he worked collaboratively with Dr Starzl on several research projects, particularly regarding the evaluation of tacrolimus as a novel immunosuppressive agent and subsequently on aspects of the role of donor hematopoietic cells in regulation of organ transplant outcome. His current research is focused on regulatory immune cells and their translation to therapeutic application in the clinic.



Thanks Angus,

I had posted my thoughts on facebook upon hearing of Dr. Starzl's passing last weekend. I appreciate the opportunity AST has given us to comment here. Here is my post.

Today the entire transplant community, as well as the world, has a giant void in it.

Dr. Starzl passes away yesterday morning at home, peacefully.

I had the distinct fortune to know him, work with him, and take care of thousands of liver transplant patients and their families because of him.
Words can't express the emotions I am going through right now, as I know many around the world are feeling too. I am literally and figuratively where I am today because of him. As a two time kidney transplant recipient (1985 and 2001) I understand how vital Dr. Starzl was in ensuring that the progress in successful transplantation happened. If not for him, I am sure I would not be here to write this post.

Yesterday morning I attended the Tampa General Hospital Transplant by the Bay Conference. The first speaker was Tara Storch. Her daughter Taylor became an organ donor at 13 yrs old, after a tragic skiing accident. Tara and her husband started a foundation. Taylor's Gift. It helps transplant patients, and works towards increasing organ donation. The motto of the foundation is:
Outlive Yourself.

Dr Starzl has done that a thousand fold. I truly hope that Joy, his family, the UMPC family, and all of us still here, can take some comfort in knowing this.

I am grateful for all of the relationships I have made from my time in Pittsburgh, because of Dr. Starzl. I am sending a hug out to all of you.

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