Slice of History: 1st Triple Transplant: Dec. 17, 1986

For seven hours, a team of 15 people, including four surgeons, work on a 35-year-old woman with liver disease and severe pulmonary hypertension in an operating room in Cambridge, England. When they finish, she becomes the first person in history to receive a new heart, liver and lungs at one time.

The woman, named Davina Thompson, had been in and out of the hospital for the past two years and seriously ill for more than six months. Finally, in November, she had been placed on a transplant waiting list.

She didn’t have a long wait. An appropriate donor—who was never publicly identified—was found, and the body was able to provide all the organs Thompson needed. She was flown from her home in northern England to Cambridge for the operation.

The doctors would have preferred to have done the surgeries at different times, but in her case, that wasn’t an option. They knew that if they tried to do the liver transplant first, her heart likely wouldn’t have survived the surgery.

So the heart and lungs were transplanted first, then the liver was replaced by a separate team led by Dr. Roy Calne, a surgeon who had helped develop cyclosporine, a drug that revolutionized transplant surgery by keeping a person’s body from rejecting donor organs.

Thompson, the wife of a coal miner, was able to go home two months later—but not before meeting Prince Charles, who was visiting transplant patients at the hospital. She told him: “I am fitter now than I have ever been.”

She lived a pretty healthy life for the next twelve years, but became ill with a viral infection in her lung and died in August, 1998. She was 47. 

Even so, Thompson had beaten the odds.  The five-year survival rate for people who had undergone multiple transplants was about 40 percent. 

More Slices of History

1st Anesthesia: Dec. 11, 1844

1st Heart Transplant: Dec. 3, 1967 

CT Scanner Invented: Nov. 25, 1975

Smoking Banned on Planes:  Nov. 21, 1989

First Lobotomy: Nov. 12, 1935