Globally Renowned Alumnus Dr. Thomas Starzl Passes Away

Legendary teachers shape the lives of students who, in turn, touch the lives of countless others with the fruit of their knowledge.  There has been no more legendary professors at Westminster College than Dr. Cameron Day, whose reputation was so illustrious he could pick up the phone and place his students in the finest medical schools in America.  Sadly, one of Dr. Day’s most globally renowned students died Saturday at the ripe old age of 90.  Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, Class of 1947 and a Phi Delt, a man who changed the face of medicine for the second half of the 20th century and beyond, passed away at his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The impact of Thomas Starzl is evident when every major news outlet informs the world of his passing.

Known as “the father of transplantation,” Dr. Starzl performed the world’s first liver transplant in 1963 and the first successful liver transplant in 1967. He also is responsible for breakthrough drugs to prevent patients from rejecting new organs.

The son of a newspaper editor and pioneer in science fiction writing, Dr. Starzl turned his father’s revolutionary science fiction into revolutionary science fact.  His mother was a registered nurse and watching her respect for doctors over the years and as they treated her during her unsuccessful fight to beat breast cancer at the age of 50 inspired him to seek a career in medicine. Obviously his biology degree at Westminster provided an excellent start.  This pioneer in his field honed his skills and polished his courage right here under the tutorage of the great one, Dr. Day.

President Akande recalls shortly after he came to Westminster, he spoke to Dr. Starzl and asked him what he remembered most about Westminster College.  He responded without hesitation that  Dr. Day had inspired him beyond his wildest dreams and had given him the courage and preparation to provide a good start for his career.

Throughout his successful medical career, Dr, Starzl never lost sight of the humanity of his patients, whom he called “the true heroes.”  Of his success, he said:  “It has been simple justice to have this happen in the lifetimes of those early organ recipients who began their desperate journeys with no other weapons than faith, hope, and fierce determination.  No prizes or laurels will come their way.  But there always will be the realization that they have left giant footprints in the sands of time.”

During his lifetime, countless laurels came Dr. Starzl’s way as a result of his accomplishments. He received a Lifetime Alumni Achievement Award from Westminster in 1965 and an honorary degree in 1968. Among his numerous other honors over his lifetime was the nation’s highest award for science, the National Medal of Science, which Dr. Starzl received at the White House in 2006 from President George W. Bush.

The entire Westminster community extends condolences to Dr. Starzl’s family—his wife of 36 years, Joy, and his son Timothy and a grandson.

In his memoirs entitled The Puzzle People, Dr. Starzl was referring to his patients with the title. He felt every patient was a puzzle because they not only had to adjust physically to accepting a new part but see the world in a different way as well with no way to predict how the physical and mental parts would be put back together.  And most of all, he believed that his patients gave meaning to the puzzle of his own life.

Dr. Starzl felt blessed that his journey allowed him to make medical discoveries that will save the lives of people for generations to come.  “To have the fog lift, exposing this clarifying vision, was like being allowed a glimpse of eternity,” he said.  “And then it was gone, banished by the next set of questions.”

We can all be thankful that Dr. Starzl was given that “glimpse of eternity” and that he never lost his scientific curiosity to accept the challenge of the next set of questions that lay ahead of him.  His life of  intellectual curiosity, dedication to excellence, and passion to serve should be an example for us in our own lives.

“I would presume that as St. Peter welcomed Thomas to the Golden Gates, he was ushered in by the thousands of souls who benefited from his pioneering work on liver transplants,” says President Akande.  “Heaven has gained a true warrior, and we on earth celebrate a remarkable talent who extended the human timeline we simply call ‘life.’ Rest well, Dr. Starzl.  Job well done.”


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1 Response

  1. Thomas Burke says:

    Westminster College :
    In Memory of Dr. Starzl
    I think you should feel very proud of your student, Dr. Thomas Starzl. I thank you for your contributions to his life.
    I met the man, many years after he had left your care, and fairly soon after he moved his team to Pittsburgh.
    At the time, I was working in New York City doing financial analysis work for a Wall Street Company.
    One Saturday evening, I fell ill and could not sleep. I had only recently moved to the area, from Chicago, and did not have a physician. So, about 2am, Sunday, I drove myself to a local hospital ER. Amazingly enough, they admitted me (I was apparently quite anemic). Within about two weeks, they determined that my problem related to my liver as there was a tumor that had attached to it. Upon some inquiries by my father, a liver specialist was found at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY, and that Dr. advised my family to take me to see this Doctor in Pittsburgh as surgery might be needed. The name of that Doctor, Thomas Starzl.
    So, we make arrangements, fly to Pittsburgh and on a Friday afternoon, July 10, 1981 Dr. Starzl comes to inform myself and my parents that the tumor had completely enveloped my liver, and he could not cut it away so a better option was a liver transplant. Now, he said this with the most at-ease demeanor you could imagine, and I just said, “sure, when can we schedule that?”
    So, again no sense of uneasiness on his part, but he replied something along the lines of as soon as well can.
    As it turns out, the very next evening, July 11, I find out that a suitable match has been found (I was completely naive about all of this, even at 26 years old). So, about 4-5 minutes later, he shows up, asks if I have any questions – “no” and he says he needs to go and get the organ, and I said – straight faced as I didn’t really know what to say “don’t drop it.” I’m sure he thought I was nuts. He had me sign some consent papers, and off!
    Give or take, 18 hours later, I wake up in ICU.
    Over the next 3 weeks or so, I would see him, 4-7 sometimes 9 times a day, all hours of the day or night, I really don’t know that he slept! But always checking up, making sure i was ok, no pain, etc.
    Then, he married Joy and they were off, back in about 5 days, and then I was released from the hospital.
    I did not know until the day before my release, that no adult had ever survived the procedure before. So, here we are almost 36 years later.
    Your student – well, he had a great sense of humor, was knowledgeable about seemingly thousands of topics – Sports,Music,Politics,Movies,Current Events, you name it. He cared about all of his patients, just beyond what you would ever imagine! So, be it our careers, our spouses/children/parents, our education, our interests, our problems – he seemed to be interested in it all.
    His sense of recall, I would run into him sometimes, 10-15-20 years after my transplant and, if someone was with him; another doctor, nurse, administrator, operating room staff, whomever – he would recant my case, from memory, he knew the date, he knew what my diagnosis/problem had been, just uncanny! And, there was nothing special about me, so I have to think he could do this for any other patient as well. And, remember, this from someone who participated in well over 10,000 surgical procedures over his career, and probably led 80% of those.
    Over the years, I sometimes invited him to a family occasion or other type of thing, and while he frequently did not come, he always sent a note. And, those notes would make my day-sometimes several days. Be it 10 sentences in the note or 30, what a joy! To think that this person, the busiest person I have ever met, would take the time to write and send me a note I found to be the greatest of gifts. In fact, while writing this – that thought brings tears of joys to my eyes.
    Did you know, that he managed to teach himself self-hypnosis? he used to keep a sleeping bag in the OR, and when feeling like he was tired, would find a suitable portion of the procedure, to stop,put himself to sleep for 30-60 minutes, then wakeup and finish. (Liver transplants are long, mine was about 18 hours, which is in the high end, but always at least 6 hours (some years they performed well over 300 at Presbyterian and Children’s Hospitals in Pittsburgh). He also kept a sleeping bag in his office.
    Oh, and just so you know that his knowledge and expertise were not just in surgery, he also was the most prolific author of medical journal articles in history, something like 1 every week? I have heard other doctors tell me that Dr. Strarzl could take research information and in 3-5 hours produce an article that would have taken his peers days to prepare.
    Thank you for your contribution to the most terrific person the world has ever seen. I am forever, grateful!
    He had a fear of failing his patients, the people whose lives had been put in his hands, he just couldn’t let them down, and he never forgot the cases that did not work out. But, I tell you, I did not have the least bit of fear in putting my life in his hands, but did fear that I would let him down if i did not get well, and he would feel that he had wasted time, energy and an organ on me.
    I truly think that it motivated me to get well, this fear that I would let him down.
    See following for more : – 2016-07-25