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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