PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Dr. Thomas Starzl, who was a pioneer in organ transplantation, died at his Pittsburgh home Saturday. He was 90 years old.

Dr. Starzl made Pittsburgh the transplant capital of the world.

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In 1967 at the University of Colorado, he performed the first successful liver transplant operation.

“There were people, accomplished surgeons, who thought a liver transplant was impossible, because it’s a complicated organ. He had the surgical skills to confidently tackle those challenges,” said Former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

When Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1981, he conducted 30 more successful operations that year. Pittsburgh became the busiest and largest transplant center in the world, performing 5,000 transplants a year.

Dr. Starzl played a key role in the development of immunosuppression drugs that dramatically improved the survival rate for liver transplant patients.

“Almost overnight, it improved the survival by two-fold, double the survival. Then, it went on, to make it better, as the medication was tweaked,” said Dr. Fadi Lakkis with the Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute.

Dr. Lakkis said working with Dr. Starzl was the reason he came to Pittsburgh. He said the world-renowned transplant surgeon always had a special relationship with patients.

“He always communicates with them, he knows them, personally. He knows their children, their grandchildren,” Dr. Lakkis said.

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“I get cards, by the dozens, maybe, by the hundreds, and I always write, read them, and I write back, personal letters,” Dr. Starzl said in 2006.

In 1996, the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute was renamed the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute in his honor, and Dr. Starzl held the title of director emeritus of the Institute and Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2006, then-President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

He not only saved thousands of lives, but trained other doctors.

“There was a point in time, when you could say everyone doing liver transplants, anywhere in the world, had either been trained by Dr. Starzl, or had been trained by someone who had been taught by Dr. Starzl,” Nordenberg said.

Dr. Thomas Starzl was not only a world-renowned doctor and scientist but also a great humanitarian.

“He did more to advance the cause of human health, than perhaps anyone in history,” Nordenberg said.

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