He was a pioneer in many ways and his work helped change the face of medicine forever, but Dr. Samuel L. Kountz Jr. never became a household name. Kountz overcame many obstacles to become a pioneer in of the most important new medical fields of the late 20th century, organ transplantation.
He was born in a small town near the Mississippi River in East Arkansas in 1930 to a minister father. After Kountz spent most of his early school years in a one-room school with few facilities, his father sent him to a small boarding school.
Kountz had dreams of becoming a doctor, but his path after graduating high school in 1948 was a difficult one. The state’s medical school, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, did not yet accept African-American applicants and entering any college was a struggle. Cases across the South, including Texas, wound through courts on these issues. Kountz struggled to find a college or gain admission but eventually attended what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He graduated third in his class in 1952.
With the successful admission and 1952 graduation of Dr. Edith Irby from UAMS, Kountz’s own path to enrollment and a medical education was made much smoother. Kountz received a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas in 1956 and his medical degree from UAMS in 1958.
To complete his formal medical training, or residency, Kountz found a position in California. There he became part of a team led by surgeon and researcher Dr. Roy Cohn, who was experimenting with kidney transplantation. In 1959, he assisted Cohn in one of the first kidney transplants performed in the United States.
The earliest transplants were between identical twins to avoid the problems of immune systems rejecting the new, life-saving organ. The team realized the immediate problem for the procedure since so few people had twins. For the rest of their careers, Kountz and Cohn carefully analyzed the problems of type-matching, slowly learning to overcome the problems of matching organ tissues to avoid rejection. By the mid-1960s, their discoveries greatly expanded the numbers of people who could donate a kidney to save the life of a family member or even someone they were not directly related to.
By 1970, Kountz and the Stanford team celebrated their 100th successful procedure. However, funding cuts in 1971 led Kountz to move to the University of California at San Francisco to continue his research as an associate professor of surgery.
At UCSF, he built a program of research and training new surgeons which became one of the most respected in the nation. He earned great respect from his colleagues, even being named as a fellow to the American College of Surgeons and serving as president of the Society of University Surgeons in 1974. He would eventually perform or assist in performing 500 transplants. By the time Kountz died in 1981, nearly 4,000 kidney transplants were being performed annually in the United States thanks to techniques he helped develop.
Today, kidney transplants are almost routine. Patients receiving transplanted kidneys now have survival rates of nearly 98% the first year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth has been routinely performing kidney transplants since the 1980s while Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston performs more than 30 kidney transplants for children each year, making it one of the most important transplant centers in the nation. Many other Texas hospitals also perform the procedure. Nearly 20,000 kidney transplants are performed each year in the United States alone in a process that has now saved countless lives.
Prejudice once nearly derailed the career of a great thinker. Compassion and changes in attitudes allowed him to learn and gave him the opportunity for his imagination to soar. Sometimes medical innovation takes the most unusual paths, but the drive to save lives will find a way to succeed.
Ken Bridges is a historian, writer and native Texan. Reach him at email@example.com.