Burden of Genius: Heroes Do Exist


I’ve written about the heroic and pathbreaking work of pioneering Pittsburgh-based transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl before. No amount of praise however can do justice to this benefactor of humankind who developed the technique of liver transplantation. A new documentary, however, is an important homage to the surgeon and scientist whose genius-level breakthroughs changed the world for the better.

The documentary is entitled Burden of Genius and I believe this to be apt as Dr. Starzl was light years ahead of colleagues and could see a solution to what many saw as an insoluble problem. Not surprisingly, like many innovators, Starzl had to waste time battling bureaucracy, rumors, and irrational opposition to ultimately prevail.

The documentary features interviews with Starzl, his colleagues, his family, and his mentees. What shines through every second of the film, is the love of his work that Starzl embodies. He practiced the virtue of productiveness to such a degree that he almost seems to be a fictional hero, but he wasn’t fictional and the insurmountable obstacles he traversed really existed and were surmounted. He is someone to emulate no matter your career.

The film details the ups and down of building a liver transplantation network: the deaths and the failures as well as the stunning final successful result. Pittsburgh and its hospital systems are what they are today because Starzl took the baton from Carnegie, Mellon, and Frick. The same could be said of transplantation as a whole, immunosuppression, and transplant infectious diseases.

I never met Dr. Starzl in person though I had seen him walking around the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC campuses several times. I even heard him lecture once. One of my greatest memories, though, was at even honoring my mentor DA Henderson, the architect of the eradication of smallpox. As DA finished his talk, he approached me and I realized Dr. Starzl was there too. “DA, there’s Dr. Starzl, “ I said as he approached. I was completely in awe to see these two giant benefactors of mankind in the same room interacting with each other.

As a physician watching Burden of Genius, I was completely inspired to work harder, push myself further, and use my mind more fully and for that alone the film is invaluable.

I hope it has a wide audience.