February 17, 2006

Heart transplant pioneer Shumway dies at 83

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Norman Shumway, M.D.

Heart transplant pioneer Shumway dies at 83

Norman E. Shumway, M.D., Ph.D., the 1949 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine alumnus who performed the first human heart transplant in the United States, died of cancer on Feb. 10 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 83.

In December 1967, one month shy of his historic transplant, Dr. Shumway watched with the rest of the world as Christiaan Barnard, M.D., a South African heart surgeon, performed the world's first human heart transplant. As he looked the news reports of Barnard's groundbreaking surgery, he only felt relief, Shumway said in a 1997 interview with Vanderbilt Medicine, VUSM's alumni magazine.

“It was an advantage, in a way, not having all the media attention focused on us,” he said. “It just took off some of the pressure. At Stanford, we just kept going because we had the patience.”

Dr. Shumway and his surgical team at Stanford performed the first transplant on Mike Kasperak, a 54-year-old Palo Alto steelworker, who died 14 days after the operation. But when some on the same path gave up, Shumway continued his research, helping to improve techniques and patient survival rates. Thirteen years later he performed the first heart-lung transplant. Today, heart transplants are performed more than 2,000 times a year in the United States — 2,016 in 2004 — and as of July 15, 2005, the one-year survival rate was 86.4 percent for males and 84.6 percent for females.

Dr. Shumway said in the Vanderbilt Medicine interview that the years leading up to the first human transplant were full of fun and excitement.

“In the original animal experiments, it was just unbelievable seeing a dog the next day after the transplant, up running around the laboratory trying to find food and looking just like every dog you ever had in your family,” he said. “That was the real thrill. That's where we had the fun. At that time, it was just all so exceptional. It was unique.”

Dr. Shumway, the son of a Kalamazoo, Mich., dairy farmer, planned to study law before World War II took him away from his studies at the University of Michigan. He never earned a bachelor's degree, but enlisted in the Army in 1943, and was given the choice of becoming a physician or a dentist. He chose medicine and enrolled at VUSM after completing a nine-month pre-med course at Baylor.

After leaving Vanderbilt, Dr. Shumway was a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Heart Institute at the University of Minnesota, then left to join the faculty at Stanford, where he began his studies on cardiac transplantation in 1958. He remained there his entire career. He also pioneered a procedure for correcting birth defects through bypass surgery and developed techniques for total surgical correction of “blue baby” heart defects.

Dr. Shumway was recognized with many national and international awards, and received distinguished alumnus awards from both Vanderbilt University and VUSM. An annual lecture at the Vanderbilt Transplant Center is also named for Shumway in honor of his contributions to heart transplantation research and surgery.

“Dr. Shumway is recognized as one of Vanderbilt's most distinguished alumni, receiving the first Vanderbilt Medical Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983,” said Ann Price, M.D., executive director for Medical Alumni Affairs. “An innovative researcher, educator and clinician, he is remembered not only for his brilliant intellect but also for his tireless commitment to excellence, an excellence that would elevate and extend the lives of cardiac transplant patients well beyond the span of his years. His pioneering spirit will live on in those fortunate enough to have trained under his demanding tutelage.”

He is survived by his ex-wife, a son, Michael and three daughters, Amy, Lisa and Sara, a 1979 graduate of VUSM and former Vanderbilt house officer, who directs the heart and lung transplantation program at the University of Minnesota, and two grandchildren.