History of Donation

Transplant milestones 

Transplants are one of the most miraculous achievements of modern medicine. They involve the donation of organs from one person to another and enable about 3,000 people to take on a new lease of life in the UK every year. Find out more about the history of organ and blood donation here...


Transplants made feasible

Alexis Carrel demonstrates the joining of blood vessels to make organ transplant feasible for the first time.

The surgical joining of blood vessels is one of many surgical techniques pioneered by the French doctor Alexis Carrel. This breakthrough opens up possibilities for further transplant surgery by allowing transplanted tissues to be reconnected to the blood supply. Carrel goes on to perform much of the research behind whole organ transplants and later invents machines to sustain live organs outside of the body during a transplant. In recognition of the techniques he pioneers, Carrel is awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912.


First cornea transplant

First reported cornea transplant takes place in Olmutz, Moravia, in December 1905.

On December 7 1905 Dr Eduard Zirm carries out the world's first successful cornea transplant, returning the sight of a labourer blinded in an accident a year earlier. After a few hours the patient can see again and he retains his eyesight for the rest of his life. The operation proves that such transplants can work. Some 2,400 corneal transplants are now carried out each year. The cornea is unique in the human body as it does not require a blood supply to survive and as such it can be donated up to 24 hours after death by people of all ages.


Blood transfusion established

 During World War I blood transfusion becomes firmly established making many life-saving operations possible for the first time.

There had been many unsuccessful attempts at blood transfusion for hundreds of years but they had failed as the science behind blood was not fully understood. With blood-typing and the development of anti-coagulants blood can be stored for transfusion with far better results than ever before. During World War I the British army uses these advances to create a "blood depot" where blood is stored for wounded troops; this is the predecessor of modern blood banks. 


NHS established

The National Health Service is established and will go on to be at the forefront of transplant technology.

When health secretary Aneurin Bevan opens Park Hospital in Manchester it is the climax of a hugely ambitious plan to bring good healthcare to all. For the first time hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists are brought together under one umbrella organisation to provide services that are free for all at the point of delivery. The central principles are clear: the health service will be available to all and financed entirely from taxation, which means that people will pay into it according to their means.


First successful kidney transplant

The world's first truly successful kidney transplant operation is performed by Dr Joseph Murray in Boston, Massachussetts.

Paving the way for the technique that has gone on to save over 400,000 lives around the world, Dr Joseph Murray breaks new ground when he and his team transplant a kidney from Ronald Herrick to his dying twin brother, Richard. It saves his life. Today kidneys are the organ most commonly transplanted, with approximately 2,000 transplants each year in the UK. Kidneys are usually donated at the point of death, but one third of transplanted kidneys in the UK are from living donors, who usually continue to lead normal healthy lives with the use of one kidney.


UK's first kidney transplant

The UK's first donor kidney transplant is performed on October 30 at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

Britain's first kidney transplant is performed by Sir Michael Woodruff. As with the world's first kidney transplant, the operation takes place between identical twins, reducing the chances of rejection. The operation is such a success that the donor is back at work three weeks later, and his brother returns to work after 15 weeks. The brothers live for another six years before dying from unrelated causes.


World's first liver transplant

Dr Thomas Starzl performs the world's first liver transplant in Denver, Colorado.

Although the surgery itself is a success, anti-rejection drugs are not fully developed and, unfortunately, the patient does not survive. However, Starzl gains considerable knowledge from the procedure and goes on to develop many of the drugs and techniques that make long-term survival possible for liver recipients. Four years later, in 1967, the first truly successful transplant is performed.


First 'non-heartbeating'donor

Kidney transplant in UK uses an organ donated from a dead person for the first time.

The first kidney transplant in the UK from a 'non-heartbeating' donor is carried out in November at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. A recent survey by UK Transplant indicates that success rates for 'non-heartbeating' donor transplants are very similar to those achieved for living donor transplants. 


World's first heart transplant

The world's first heart transplant operation performed in South Africa by Dr Christiaan Barnard.

Heart patient Louis Washkansky agrees to undergo the experimental surgery after he is diagnosed with a heart defect that would otherwise prove fatal. The operation is performed by Dr Christiaan Barnard on December 3. He replaces Louis's heart with the heart from a young woman. Washkansky dies 18 days after the operation from pneumonia but proves a patient can survive the transplant surgery.


First heart transplant in UK

Britain's first heart transplant is carried out by a team of 18 doctors and nurses in London.

When surgeons at The National Heart Hospital in London perform the transplant, it is only the tenth time the procedure has ever been performed. Frederick West is the recipient of a heart from labourer Patrick Ryan. Ryan had suffered serious head injuries and, with his familyís consent, was rushed to hospital for the surgery. Although West dies from an infection nine weeks after the operation, the procedure paves the way for around 300 heart transplants to be performed each year in Britain.


First UK liver transplant

Professor Roy Calne performs UK's first liver transplant at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

The first liver transplant outside the USA is performed at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, by British surgeon and scientist Sir Roy Calne. Much of his subsequent work focuses on the improvement of immunosuppression techniques aimed at prolonging the life of liver transplant recipients.


New laboratory checks for suitability

The National Tissue Typing and Reference Laboratory (NTTRL) is established in Bristol to check compatibility.


Donor card for kidneys introduced

A card for kidney donation is introduced, establishing the idea of a card to show a person wishes to donate their organs.

As surgeons successfully perform more and more kidney transplants from non-living donors, the demand for donors increases. With the introduction of the kidney donor card the public can express their wishes to donate their kidneys, in the event of their death, by simply carrying the card.


New organ matching service

National Organ Matching and Distribution Service (NOMDS) is founded in response to the advances in transplant technology. 

NOMDS is formed to create a national database of patients awaiting transplants. Details are transferred into a computerised system that stores and sorts the data so that the best possible matches of donor to recipient can be made. At the time computers are still in their infancy, so lists of thousands of recipients have to be printed twice a week to ensure that vital, life-saving information is not lost. With the advances made by the database, 455 kidney transplants are carried out in the first 11 months that NOMDS is in operation.


UK Transplant Service established

NTTRL and NOMDS merge to become the UK Transplant Service.

Due to health service reforms and central funding, the National Tissue Typing and Reference Laboratory (NTTRL) and National Organ Matching and Distribution Service (NOMDS) were merged to form the UK Transplant Service.


First transplant co-ordinators appointed

Transplant co-ordinators are appointed for the first time to oversee all aspects of transplant care and support.

Transplants are highly complex and involve a great deal of support beyond the surgery itself. The process starts with the request for organ donation and support of the donor family. It continues with the ongoing management of the donor and subsequent organisation of the donation process, including allocation of the donated organs. Co-ordinators also play a vital role in educating staff from other disciplines about this highly specialised area of care. 


Kidney donor card replaced

The UK kidney donor card is replaced with a donor card allowing the public to offer corneas and several organs for transplant.

Originally allowing only kidney donation, the new donor card is expanded to include the heart, liver, pancreas and corneas. The card is a major step in raising awareness of organ donation. Today almost 15m Britons have said they wish to be organ and cornea donors after their death.


Liver Transplant Programme established

The Liver Transplant Programme makes liver transplants nationally available for the first time.

Liver transplants are co-ordinated through nine specialised liver transplant units across the UK, including Addenbrookes Hospital, where the first liver transplant outside the US was performed in 1963. The establishment of this programme will lead to improved patient management techniques and improved success rates.


Corneal Transplant Service launches

Launch of Corneal Transplant Service (CTS) with support from the Iris Fund for the Prevention of Blindness.

The CTS is launched by the UK Transplant Service in October, to improve the availability of corneas within the UK. The cornea is the clear covering of the iris and pupil and corneal transplants can be vital in saving sight for many patients. Corneas can be stored for transplant for up to four weeks, meaning that the CTS can "bank" and send out corneas for suitable recipients all over the UK, reducing wastage and playing a vital role in saving the sight for some 2,000 patients in the UK each year.


Combined heart and lung transplant

The first combined heart and lung transplant in the UK is performed by Sir Magdi Yacoub at Harefield Hospital.  

Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub carries out the operation on a Swedish journalist, Lars Ljungberg. A combined transplant of this kind is said to be simpler than a heart transplant as there are fewer small blood vessels to join and just three main places where the organs are sewn into place. Ljunberg dies after 13 days, his wife and mother by his side. His body does not reject the new organs but he succumbs to a previous medical condition. 


Lungs added to donor card

Donor Cards will now include lungs as transplants become more surgically viable.

As further advances in lung transplant surgery are made, the Donor Card is expanded to include the donation of lungs. Since 1981 the card had included corneas and major organs including the pancreas, kidneys, liver and heart. 


First lung-only transplant

The UK's first lung-only transplant provides a new lung for the recipient and paves the way for whole-lung transplants.

Combined heart and lung transplants had been successfully performed before but lung-only transplants had proved harder to perfect due to a higher level of rejection and the complex surgery needed to separate the lungs and heart. Innovations in anti-rejection drugs and the heart-lung machine to sustain organs during surgery make this single-lung transplant possible. 


Bristol Eye Bank established

Establishment of the Bristol Eye Bank as part of the Corneal Transplant Service's national network

The Bristol Eye Bank is of vital importance in British corneal transplants and ophthalmology. It collects, examines and stores corneas in readiness for transplant, as well as performing much of the pioneering research behind eye surgery. The centre plays a major role in the Corneal Transplant Service, and each year sends some 1,500 corneas all around the country for transplant surgery.


Domino UK heart transplant

First "domino" transplant, with the recipient of a new heart and lungs donating their healthy heart to another patient.

The "domino" transplant, performed in the UK for the first time by  Magdi Yacoub, means the recipient needing a lung transplant will have both their unhealthy lungs and healthy heart removed and replaced. Their healthy heart is then transplanted to another patient. The surgery to replace both heart and lungs together is less complicated than a lung-only transplant, and domino transplants can increase the chances of successful transplants for both recipients.


Manchester Eye Bank opens

The Manchester Eye Bank is established three years after the Bristol Eye Bank was successfully introduced.

The Manchester Eye Bank plays a vital role in the Corneal Transplant Service. It leads the way with ophthalmic practice and is part of the Manchester Royal Hospital, which has an international reputation for excellence. The Manchester Eye Bank, like its Bristol counterpart, screens and stores corneas for use in transplants all around the country, with around 2,400 corneal transplants being performed in Britain each year.


National register for donation

The NHS Organ Donor Register is set up to co-ordinate supply and demand following a five-year campaign.

Despite millions carrying donor cards there had been no single database of those who had pledged their organs for transplant. With the launch of the Organ Donor Register it is far easier to identify a donor's wishes, and allows the public to sign up as organ donors in new ways, such as on driving license applications. The scheme is a resounding success, with more than 2.2m having joined the database by the end of 1995. 


First living liver donor

The transplant from a living donor is first in the UK, allowing both donor and recipients to have full liver function.

Liver transplants had helped save hundreds of lives in the UK, but there is still a shortage of suitable donor livers, particularly for patients with rare tissue types. Previously, livers were taken from donors who had died, but new research shows that transplanting part of a healthy liver from a living donor could be used in place of a whole-liver transplant.


Partial lung transplant

First UK lung-lobe transplant from a living donor successfully performed by Magdi Yacoub.

Using new techniques, this highly complicated procedure allows part of a living lung to be transplanted by removing the lobes from two healthy people to the recipient who is in need of new lungs. The major advantage is that the surgery is scheduled, meaning the recipient can begin taking anti-rejection drugs earlier, significantly lowering the chances of rejection by the recipient's body. However, it can reduce the fitness of the donors and is still a rare procedure.


UK Transplant established

UK Transplant takes over from UKTSSA with a new, extended remit to increase organ donor numbers

As well as ensuring donated organs are matched and allocated to patients in a fair and unbiased way, UK Transplant also takes on a role to substantially increase the number of organ donors in the UK. Other responsibilities include maintaining the Organ Donor Register and providing a central support for all transplant units.


First complete lung transplant

The first lung transplant from a 'non-heartbeating' donor is performed by Dr Stig Steen in Lund, Sweden.

The operation dramatically increases the possibilities for successful lung transplants. Lung tissue can deteriorate very rapidly once removed from the human body, which means that after death there has been very little time to test the tissue and perform a transplant. New techniques used in this procedure preserve lung tissue outside of the body for up to a week, giving enough time to fully test and match the tissue from a deceased donor, and allow more preparation time for the surgery itself.


Tenth anniversary of register

It's ten years since the NHS Organ Donor Register was launched.

To mark the anniversary of the register, the NHS UK Transplant launches a campaign to encourage a million more people to add their names to the register by October 2005. The Organ Donor Register enables people to record their wishes to help others after their death by donating organs and tissue for transplant. Today nearly 15m people are on the ODR.


UK Transplant merger

UK Transplant merges with the National Blood Service to form NHS Blood and Transplant.

The work of the National Blood Service and UK Transplant has been of major significance in developing donation and transplant within the UK. Building upon their previous successes, the two merge to form NHS Blood and Transplant. The new organisation aims to constantly improve the practice around blood and organ donation, helping to save thousands of lives each year.


First partial face transplant

Carried out in France, the first partial face transplant makes new forms of reconstructive surgery possible.

Surgeons perform the world's first partial facial transplant in France on a 38-year-old French woman left unable to talk or eat after being severely savaged by a dog. After several months of counselling with the patient, the surgeons create a nose and lips to replace those destroyed in the attack using skin, muscle and arteries from another woman's face. The techniques used bring hope to thousands of burn victims who could benefit from facial reconstruction.


Organ donation streamlined

The donation process is updated with new guidelines on consent brought in by The Human Tissue Acts.

The Human Tissue Authority is established in April to implement the Human Tissue Act 2004, which brought the legislation around transplants into the 21st century. This new authority regulates the removal, storage and use of organs and tissue. It also approves all transplant operations involving living donors following an independent assessment. A subsequent Act in 2006 will lead to further improvements.


UK's first kidney swap

Two couples celebrate the gift of life after surgeons perform the UKís first-ever paired kidney swap.

The landmark transplant involves two couples from Cambridgeshire and Edinburgh, with the recipient's partner acting as the donor for the other donor's partner. Kidneys are exchanged by relay. One donor kidney is flown from Edinburgh to Cambridgeshire and transplanted before the other coupleís donor


First living liver donor in UK

Retired police officer receives new lease of life from his liver-donor son.

David Lomas, 20, from Cumbria donates part of his liver to his father Stephen, 51, who has  advanced liver disease. The successful eight-hour operation, the first of its kind in the UK, involves two pairs of surgeons operating simultaneously in separate theatres at Leedsís St Jamesís Hospital. The adult-to-adult living liver donation offers new hope and is made possible by the introduction of the Human Tissue Acts.


First altruistic donors for UK

Sometimes called "stranger donation", donors can now donate organs to people they don't know.

Barbara Ryder, a nurse from Cornwall, is one of four people in the UK approved by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) to make a non-directed altruistic kidney donation. Her kidney was transplanted into Andy Loudon, a retired carpenter from Bedfordshire who had been receiving dialysis for two years. Andy has benefited from a new form of donation that has been allowed thanks to new systems for organ donation set up by the HTA.


Organ Donation Taskforce report published

Containing recommendations to increase organ donations.

The Organ Donation Taskforce report is published containing recommendations to increase organ donations, resulting in an additional 1,200 transplants a year. The taskforce report into the use of presumed consent recommends against adoption of an opt-out system.


First face transplant takes place

The world's first face transplant is carried out in Spain in March 2010.

Doctors in Barcelona carried out the procedure on a patient who had accidentally shot himself in the face five years earlier. The operations, which took 24 hours to perform, gave the patient new cheekbones, facial muscles, palate, skin, nose, lips and jaw.

 NHS Choices 2015