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Fifty Years Ago: History Collides in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss.–Fifty years ago from Tuesday, two defining moments occurred in Mississippi that are still remembered separately.

The first ever lung transplant occurred at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain at the very same time in the capital city.

The two events are clearly remembered in present day, separately, but the story behind each of them not usually put in context.

Dr. James D. Hardy and his surgical team were performing the first ever lung transplant on an prisoner from the Mississippi State Penitentiary the very same night Evers was shot during a time that race relations were at a boil in the state.

Squamous cell carcinoma in prisoner John Russell’s left lung had rendered it all but useless for the 58-year-old, and his right lung had been weakened by advanced emphysema.

“It is really kind of ironic that both those events happened simultaneously,” said Dr. Marc Mitchell, Chairman of the Department of Surgery at UMMC. “Medgar Evers was murdered while Dr. Hardy was doing the lung transplant.”

Dr. Hardy and his surgical team performed the first ever heart transplant less than a year later at UMMC and set another mile stone.

“The world’s first lung transplant . . . was a major, major feat,” Mitchell said. “It’s actually more difficult to do a lung transplant than a heart transplant, so it is interesting that he did the first lung transplant before he did the first heart transplant.

Russell, the lung transplant recipient, died 19 days after the history-making surgery. It was his kidney disease – not the newly transplanted lung – that led to his death.

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