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If you like Thomas Starzl's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Keith Black,
Benjamin Carson,
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Judah Folkman,
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Thomas Starzl
Thomas Starzl
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Thomas Starzl Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Father of Modern Transplantation

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  Thomas Starzl

Let's go back to the beginning. Can you tell us about the town where you were born and grew up?

Thomas Starzl: I was born in Le Mars, Iowa, a town with a population of about 5,000 in Northwest Iowa.

What was it like growing up there?

Thomas Starzl: I think it was pretty normal, up to a certain point. That is, up until the time when the Second World War started. I was born in 1926. That means I'm just a few months short of being 85, and so this was long ago. I was in the Navy in 1944, 1945. But I think the social environment changed dramatically long before then. Pearl Harbor occurred in 1941, but even before that we were unofficially in the war. So there was a wartime ambience during most of my teenage years.

That must have been kind of poignant to a family that owned and ran a newspaper, keeping up on the details of World War Two?

Thomas Starzl: Well, I think it affected everybody.

This particular town, which is really a farm-based town, as most small towns in Iowa were then, and probably still are, there was a very high mortality in the Le Mars area, probably partly because there was a regional National Guard and we were on the tail end of a depression at the time. So there was a little income that came from belonging to the National Guard, and I think a very large fraction of the teenage population signed up. So they were off and they ended up all over the world. And during the war, if there was a death, a casualty that took place, the family got a Gold Star. So you could walk down the street, there were many -- too many -- Gold Stars in Le Mars, probably way out of proportion to that in most other places. So there was, I think, a pretty grim environment as a result of all that.

What about your school days? What was it like to go to school in Le Mars?

Thomas Starzl: We had very good teachers, wonderful teachers. That was a difference from today, because...

Up until the war almost no mothers, wives had jobs, worked. They raised their families. That was pretty much it. Their representation in the workplace was very small. Probably less than five percent of the jobs were held by women. But with the manpower shortage, there was this huge flood of women who got jobs now and had access to professions and all other kinds of jobs. Those women had represented an army, an enormous human resource whose only professional outlet was teaching. So in the book that I wrote, The Puzzle People, I named a lot of the ones that I remembered. They were of course profoundly influential. They were great teachers. But these were the kind of women that in today's environment would be presidents of banks and the heads of departments of surgery and doing all the things now that women do. Just as an example, this situation was just changing after the war. And after the war, when I went to medical school in 1947, at Northwestern there were classes of right around 120 or 125, but our class only had two women. That was pretty representative of the situation around the country. Nowadays the percentage of women in a medical school class is at least 50 percent. Here it's actually greater. Here at the University of Pittsburgh, it's actually greater than 50 percent. But that's every place now. But it was from that population, from the female population that the teachers were drawn. So we had top line people as teachers. They were all women. I didn't mention a single man in The Puzzle People, because there wasn't a single man who really fit that bill.

Was there a particular teacher or mentor that stood out during your early years? Someone who challenged you or inspired you?

Thomas Starzl Interview Photo
Thomas Starzl: I named three or four in the book, and I can remember single figures from different grades, the first being a lady named Miss Mary Waddick. There were other names that followed, but they tended to be with succeeding grades. There was another nice feature. You usually kept the teacher for not just one year, but over a span of two or three years, so there was a good deal of continuity. They're now looking at that in charter schools as a very favorable situation, but it existed, automatically existed. I think I had an outstanding elementary and high school education in a small town in Iowa. Seventy years ago, Northwest Iowa was still a very primitive area. Not quite frontier land, but in 1926 we were only 40 years away from the Dodge City shootouts and the development of that part of the Middle West. It was really more West than Middle West.

Do you remember any books making a great impression on you as a young person? Was there anything you read that excited or inspired you?

Thomas Starzl: I had a great break, entirely I'm sure by accident, but when we lived off in the periphery of Le Mars, near the edge of the city when I was born. I have almost no recollection of the house that we were in. I went up and visited once in a while later on. It was near a cemetery and near a Catholic church, but we moved down more toward the center of the city, at about that age, four or five, right exactly across the street from a Carnegie Library, a good one. So I was exposed at an early time to the library, and by the time I left Le Mars I probably read every damn book in the library. So the library itself was almost like an extension of my house, of the house that we lived in, just walk right across the street. I probably was a bookworm, in a sense in that I was either playing football or doing something like that or sitting in the library. It wasn't necessary to sign out a book because it was like having everything right there. But I remember there was an encyclopedia that was called The Golden Book of Verse or something like that. It was multiple volumes. I read those with great interest, from end to end. So that was my home resource, the principal home resource. But the library was important. I can remember I was trying to learn words, and every time when I was reading something in the library I encountered a word, I wrote the word down and got a definition and went back and was starting to develop a large vocabulary.

Was writing something you enjoyed when you were in school? Were you pressured to excel at writing?

Thomas Starzl: No, I was not. Actually I was not pressured to excel at all by my parents. In fact, I think they somewhat resisted my forging ahead as fast as I could have. They wanted me to have a completely normal upbringing.

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This page last revised on May 16, 2011 17:01 EDT