H.M. Lee, organ transplant pioneer, dies

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H. M. Lee, M.D., an internationally renowned pioneer in organ transplantation and former professor and chairman in the Division of Vascular and Transplant Surgery at the Medical College of Virginia, which became the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, died March 24 at the age of 87.

In the 1950s at MCV, Lee was an integral member of one of only four transplant programs in the world. He was a charter member and the 11th president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS), where he pushed for the passing of the National Organ Transplant Act, and he helped found, along with his mentor, David Hume, M.D., the organization that gave rise to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS.

“Dr. Lee and Dr. Hume were involved in changing the history of medicine,” said Robert A. Fisher, M.D., H.M. Lee Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics in the VCU School of Medicine. “Lee defined the practice of kidney transplantation for the world and helped revolutionize transplantation in general.”

“With the passing of H. M. Lee, transplant surgery and all of medicine has lost one of the greats,” said John Duval, CEO of MCV Hospitals. “A visionary researcher, gifted clinician and respected educator, Dr. Lee's contributions have touched thousands of lives and influenced generations of care providers. He truly will be missed."


Lee was born on Oct. 17, 1926, in Korea. He received his bachelor’s degree at Keijo Imperial University in 1945 and his M.D. at Seoul National University Medical School in 1949. In 1959, Lee made his way to MCV and met Hume, under whom Lee would study and work for more than a decade – first as a resident, then instructor, assistant professor, associate professor and finally professor.

In the late 1960s, Lee helped Hume and Bernard Amos, M.D., found the first regional organ sharing program in the United States, SEROPP, which later became the South-Eastern Organ Procurement Foundation (SEOPF). SEOPF gave rise to UNOS, a non-profit organization that today manages the nation's organ transplant system under contract with the federal government.

In 1973, following Hume’s death, Lee became director of the Clinical Transplant Program, professor and chairman of the Division of Vascular and Transplant Surgery and director of the Clinical Transplant Fellowship Program at VCU.

From 1984-1985, Lee was president of ASTS where he pushed for the signing into federal law of the National Organ Transplant Act, which outlawed the sale of human organs and established the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to maintain a national registry for organ matching, allocation and distribution.

His term as ASTS president established rigorous ethical standards for transplant candidate listing and prioritization, transplantation of “foreign nationals” and transplant surgeons’ minimum qualifications.

Under Lee’s 20-year leadership, the VCU Medical Center added liver, pancreas and liver cell transplantation to its capabilities, sustaining its reputation as an internationally renowned center for transplantation.

Until his retirement in 1997, Lee had the opportunity to mentor countless medical students, residents and fellows just as Hume had mentored him. James P. Neifeld, M.D., Stuart McGuire professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery in the VCU School of Medicine, met Lee when Neifeld was still a medical student.

“(Lee) would always be asked about the most complex surgeries,” remembered Neifeld. “He would give advice in a different way; he wouldn’t give answers, but rather asked questions until you came to the conclusion yourself.”

Marc Posner, M.D., is David M. Hume Chair in Surgery and professor and chairman, Division of Transplantation Surgery in the VCU School of Medicine, and director, Hume-Lee Transplant Center, VCU Health System. Posner holds Lee’s former position, and he too was taught by Lee and remembers his tranquility as a defining character trait.

“He was such a good teacher because he had seemingly infinite patience and the ability to educate those who had little interest,” said Posner. “He would lead you to the right decision and sit there all day with you if necessary.”

While patient, Lee had no desire to sit idly.  

After his retirement, he earned a law degree and practiced part-time as a consultant. Lee graduated at the age of 74 as the oldest graduate ever from the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond.

“He didn’t want to play golf or tennis – his interests were in reading, music and Zen Buddhism – he wanted to stimulate his mind,” said Posner. “Law school was quite difficult, but he made it, he made friends and he even acclimated to the computer generation.”


On March 12, 2002, the transplant center Lee directed for two decades, which opened in 1964 and is now the oldest transplant unit in the United States, was re-designated and officially named The Hume-Lee Transplant Center by the VCU Health System Board of Visitors. On January 14, 2004, the Hume-Lee Transplant Center expanded from nine to 27 beds.

Lee leaves behind an accomplished family as well.

His wife, Kyung Lee, M.D., is a retired pediatrician; his son, Bennett Lee, M.D., is assistant professor of medicine, Division of Internal Medicine, in the VCU School of Medicine; his daughter-in-law, Eun Lee, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the VCU School of Medicine; his daughter, Myung Lee, is an attorney in Washington D.C.

“He was nothing less than an icon in American surgery - a magnet who drew talent to the institution from the leading medical centers across the nation” said Sheldon Retchin, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences and CEO of the VCU Health System. “He was greatly admired for his clinical acumen and insights. He taught us all the value of leadership and a work ethic that could not be matched.  His life's work will benefit the region and nation for generations to come."


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