As Richard Herrick lay dying in Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he had second thoughts about making medical history. In another room waited his identical twin, Ronald, who was going to donate a kidney to Richard in the world's first successful organ transplant.
"Ron got a note from Richard the night of the surgery telling him to get out of there and go home," said Ronald's wife, Cynthia. "Ron sent a note back saying, 'I'm here and I'm going to stay and that's it.' "
And so it was. On Dec. 23, 1954, Dr. Joseph Murray removed a kidney from Ronald and implanted it in Richard. Years later, Murray shared a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work. For the Herrick twins, the results were more immediate and personal. Ronald gave Richard about eight more years of life.
The older and more serious of the twins, Ronald Herrick didn't talk about his key role in opening a new venue in medicine unless someone asked, and even then he had to be drawn out if the conversation lasted more than a few sentences. Unassuming and modest, he taught math for decades in high school, junior high, and college. On the side, he kept his hand in farming because he grew up on a family farm and loved the physical work of agriculture.
Mr. Herrick, who suffered from heart ailments that prompted him to retire from teaching and farming in 1997, died Monday in the Augusta Rehabilitation Center in Augusta, Maine, where he was recuperating from heart surgery in October. He was 79 and lived in Belgrade, Maine.
Though he was firm in the note to his brother, Mr. Herrick knew he was risking his life by volunteering for surgery that had never been attempted. A few months earlier, he had started attending Worcester State College.
"It was just one of those things that was kind of out of this world, I thought," he told National Public Radio in 2004 for a report on the 50th anniversary of the transplant. "It was something that hadn’t been done before, you knew nothing about it. So I thought about it a long time. ... My stomach was churning many a morning going to school."
In an autobiography, Murray recalled those moments when it seemed that the transplant team held its breath.
"There was a collective hush in the operating room as we gently removed the clamps from the vessels newly attached to the donor kidney," he wrote. "As blood flow was restored, the patient's new kidney began to... turn pink. There were grins all around."
With an identical twin as a donor, the kidney was a perfect fit.
"It was snug as a bug in a rug," Murray told NPR in 2004.
Afterward, Mr. Herrick returned to Worcester State College, from which he graduated with a bachelor's in education in 1958 and a master's in education in 1960.
"I was a freshman in college and I went back to school in a couple of weeks," he told the Globe in 2004.
Several years later, he met Cynthia Barnes when a mutual friend asked Mr. Herrick if he could give Cyththia a ride to college. They lived in adjoining towns and met when he chauffeured her and a couple of other students on her first day at Worcester State. The couple married in 1959.
Offered a new start in life, Richard Herrick married a nurse who cared for him during his hospital stay and they had two children.
The twins rarely discussed their historic moment, though, and Mr. Herrick remained reticent after Richard died.
"I had to dig out of him about the transplant to get some details," said his wife, who wrote a book for herself and family about her husband's life. "He talks about how he was out of the hospital in 10 days and he just went back to normal behavior. It was just something he did to save his brother, who was dying. He wouldn't have done otherwise. He was just very modest about the whole business. That was the kind of person he was, not one to talk about himself."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Herrick leaves an older brother, Van of Barrington, R.I., and a younger sister, Virginia Griffin of Rutland, Mass.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday in Roberts Funeral Home in Winthrop, Maine. Burial will be in the spring in Mount Vernon Community Cemetery in Mount Vernon, Maine.
"I don’t think about it very often," Mr. Herrick said of the surgery in the 2004 interview with NPR. "It was a long, long time ago. … I’ve had one good kidney all these years and I’m still walking around, so I guess it’s worked out alright."