Distinguished alumni - Starzl recognized for groundbreaking medical research, teaching

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Dr. Thomas Starzl

The 2015 Le Mars Community Schools Distinguished Alumni is a pioneer in medicine.

The award, presented by the Le Mars Community Schools Alumni Association, honors Dr. Thomas Starzl, a 1944 graduate.

Starzl was nominated by Dr. Wendell Downing, a 1948 Le Mars High School graduate, because of Starzl's medical breakthough in transplant work as well as other medical research.

(Sentinel photo by Beverly Van Buskirk) Dr. Wendell Downing holds the bulldog statue presented to Le Mars Community Schools Alumni Foundation Distinguished Alumni Dr. Thomas Starzl. Downing nominated Starzl, who was unable to attend the ceremony. Kari Kopperud, president of the alumni association, made the presentation Wednesday at the Le Mars Community School District Foundation Banquet. The two stand in front of an exhibit board on Starzl and his work and research on organ transplants, by LCS seventh grade student Sarah Meis.

He performed the first successful liver transplant in 1967.

His work in kidney, liver, pancreas, thoracic organs and multi-visceral transplants is known around the world.

At Wednesday's Le Mars Community School District Foundation Banquet, Downing accepted the award on behalf of Starzl, who was unable to attend due to health reasons.

LCS Alumni Association president Kari Kopperud presented the award, a bulldog statue.

She highlighted Starzl's accomplishments, adding how he cared deeply about his patients.

Kopperud read from a 2012 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, "In the 1980s, when Dr. Starzl was doing his highest volume of transplants, he was known for two paradoxical traits: his driving perfectionism in the operating room and his soft-hearted attachment to his patients, particularly children."

She also shared remarks from Starzl.

"Le Mars has never been far from my mind, as evidenced from a short talk that I gave in 1986 at an international meeting convened in my honor and in my 1992 book, 'The Puzzle People,'" he said.

He continued, "I have wanted for several years to make one last stop in Le Mars, primarily to visit the gravesite of my mother and father. The elaborate ice cream parlor has been another magnet."

After the presentation, Downing described Starzl as "a very nice, outstanding man. Low-key, but a brilliant researcher and surgeon."

Starzl grew up in Le Mars during the Great Depression, the son of Roman (Rome) Frederick Starzl and Anna Laura (Fitzgerald) Starzl.

He was a Boy Scout, earning his Eagle badge at the age of 14.

While at LHS he played trumpet, was the right end on the football team, lettered on the basketball team, was in chorus and glee club, debate and National Honor Society.

As a boy, Starzl worked at every job, from typesetter to reporter, at his father's newspaper, The Le Mars Globe-Post.

He served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1945.

His interest in medicine was nurtured partly by his mother, who was a nurse, and partly by local physician, Dr. Wendell Downing Sr., who allowed him to watch operations.

Starzl's mother died from breast cancer at age 50.

In 1981, Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as professor of surgery where he continues to work today.

In his nomination, Downing wrote, "Tom and his team in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, did more liver transplants than any group in the world. He trained hundreds of surgeons in transplant surgery."

Starzl retired from clinical practice in 1991.

He remains active in research as distinguished service professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

A research building on the Pittsburgh campus was renamed in his honor and houses the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute.

Starzl's work is described in more than 1,600 publications in professional journals, four books and more than 100 textbook chapters.

Starzl's numerous distinctions include the Medawar Prize (1992), the Presidential Medal of Science (2005), and the Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Science (2012).

In nominating Starzl, Downing said, "At soon to be 89, an award from the Le Mars alumni association would mean so much to him."

Starzl has three children, Timothy, Rebecca and Thomas from a first marriage.

He currently lives in Pittsburgh with his wife of 32 years, Joy, and their six dogs.

Even though he turned 89 years old in March, he continues to go to his office.

Starzl has recently been corresponding with Sarah Meis, a Le Mars Community Middle School seventh grader.

Meis researched Starzl for her National History Day project.

Her exhibit board, which advanced to state competition, was displayed at Wednesday's banquet.

Meis said she chose Starzl for her topic because he was a local person who fit the National History Day theme, "Leadership and Legacy in History."

"It was pretty awesome to communicate with Dr. Starzl," Meis said.

She said Starzl shared his knowledge of her great uncle who played basketball while he was in school and also shared that he was too shy to talk to her uncle.

"He also showed concern regarding the terrible toll of the war (World War II) and his hope that my great uncle had survived that time. He recalled the Meis granary and market," Meis added.

Meis corresponded with Starzl by e-mail.

"I would love to meet him face-to-face," she said.

Meis also like talking with Downing at Wednesday's banquet,

"It was nice to meet someone who knew Starzl personally," she said.

She added Starzl's support of her efforts to create a good history day project were much appreciated.

For her history project, Meis asked Starzl was how he wanted to be remembered.

"I would like to be remembered as a good doctor whose professional life and principles of personal behavior were grounded in a small Iowa town called Le Mars," Starzl said.

The quote is on her exhibit board.

Wednesday, Kopperud ended her presentation with a P.S. Starzl wrote to Meis.

"Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog."

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