Human tissue grafting was first performed in 1870 by a Swiss surgeon, Jacques Reverdin. In 1912 the French surgeon Alexis Carrel developed methods of joining blood vessels that made the transplantation of organs feasible. He advanced this technique further and stimulated the use of transplantation in experimental biology. He also developed fluids and the means of circulating them so that transplanted tissues could be kept alive outside a living body in artificial media. Theoretical work by Jean Dausset, George Davis Snell and Baruj Benacerraf on the genetic basis of histocompatibility paved the way for practical applications. In the 1940s, Sir Peter Brian Medawar and Sir Macfarlane Burnet described foreign tissue rejection and acquired immunological tolerance, opening the way for transplant operations. The first successful transplant of a human kidney (between identical twins) was made by Joseph E. Murray in 1954. The first human heart transplant was performed by the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard in 1967; in 1968, Edward D. Thomas performed the first successful bone-marrow transplant between people who were not twins. In the following decades liver, kidney, heart, pancreas, bone-marrow, small intestines, and multiple organ transplants became more and more routine.
As transplantation has become more common and more successful, the demand for organs has risen dramatically. The development of heart transplantation has produced an ongoing reexamination of the traditional biological and legal definitions of death, because obtaining a healthy organ for transplantation depends in large part on the earliest possible establishment of the donor's death. More than 2,000 heart transplants per year were being performed in the United States by the late 1990s, with thousands of patients waiting for available hearts. In all, more than 64,000 people were waiting to receive new organs, including hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs, and pancreases. Many people carry organ donor cards, which indicate their wish to donate if they are killed in an accident, and many states require hospitals to request donation from the families of eligible donors. A side effect of the demand for donated organs has been the increasing use of lung and liver tissue, as well as kidneys, from live donors.
In the late 1990s surprising successes were achieved in transplanting body parts other than organs. Surgeons in France and the United States were able to transplant hands that became partly functional without rejection crises. In 2005 a French surgical team achieved a partial face transplant, replacing damage areas (nose, lips, and chin) of a woman's face with skin and underlying tissues from a dead donor. A nearly total face transplant was performed in the United States three years later, and a total face transplant was performed in France the year after that. Although receiving less attention, successful transplants of knees, the trachea (windpipe), and the larynx (voice box) have also been achieved. Such operations, called nonvital transplants, have become possible owing to improved surgical techniques, monitoring of rejection, and drug therapy. Still largely experimental, they must be approved by ethics committees before being undertaken, especially as the risk of taking immunosuppressive drugs may outweigh the benefits of the operation.