Why Do Organ Transplants Get Rejected?

Heart operation

Heart operation

To answer, Why Do Organ Transplants Get Rejected, we need to look into this relatively recent activity  for humans. Human organ transplants are relatively new, with the first being for a kidney in 1954. The transplant was undertaken by Dr. Joseph Murray who won a Nobel prize for his work. The patient went on to live for a further 8 years, but the kidney came from his twin which meant there was no immune rejection.

Blood types

Blood transfusions are rejected, if incompatible blood types are mixed. But donated blood is normally centrifuged to seperate out the different components. In an ordinary transfusion, all you are recieving is red blood cells. Apart from a few really rare cases, everybodies red blood cells fall into 4 main groups (A, B, AB, and O). This makes it much easier donar and reciprient – and in emergencies, you can safely give type O negative blood to everyone. Organ tissues have compatitibilty types determined by much more complicated genetics with thousands of possible combinations, so finding a match from unrelated donors is less likely.


The first human heart transplant was conducted for a grocer from South Africa. He was suffering from chronic heart disease in 1967 and was aged 53. The donar was a twenty five year old women who had tragically died in a car accident, named Denise Darvall. The patient was named Lewis Washkansky and the operation was conducted by Surgeon Christiaan Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.

Early research

Barnard used a technique that was first established at Stanford, California. The researchers there had overseen heart transplants for frogs and then dogs who had gone on to live. These operations were conducted by a surgeon called Norman Shumway in 1958.

Patient reaction

Following the operation on Washkansky, much work was done to stop him rejecting the transplant by suppressing the immune system. The treatment left him open to sickness and just 18 days later he died, not from heart disease but from double pneumonia. Despite the obviouse upset for all concerned, this was a great triumph in the history of transplants as the new heart that Washkansky had adopted had operated well until his death.