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February 18, 1999

Starzl named one of millennium's 1,000 most important people

A University of Pittsburgh faculty member is among the 1,000 most important people of the millennium, according to a new book.

Organ transplantation pioneer Thomas E. Starzl — professor of surgery and director of a Pitt transplantation institute named after him — was ranked No. 213 by the authors of "1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium " (Kodansha America, 332 pp., $17).

Starzl (born in 1932) was ranked immediately below the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), and one spot ahead of John Adams (1735-1826), second U.S. president, diplomat and political philosopher.

A spokesperson said Starzl was "surprised and honored" by the ranking.

Aggravatingly for Pitt advocates, Northwestern is the only university linked with Starzl by the book's authors — a pair of New Jersey journalist couples, Barbara and Brent Bowers and Agnes Hooper Gottlieb and Henry Gottlieb.

They write: "As a medical instructor at Northwestern University, Starzl decided to buck conventional medicine and devote his life's work to transplanting organs." The book points out that Starzl went on to perform the first liver transplant (the patient, a 3-year-old boy, bled to death on the operating table) in 1963, and that Starzl recently has championed the anti-rejection drug FK-506 as being more effective tha n the original anti-rejection "wonder drug," cyclosporine.

But the book does not mention that Starzl performed that first liver transplant while at the University of Colorado, nor that he has been at Pitt since 1981.

Then again, the book doesn't claim to be authoritative or scholarly, although its authors say they spent thousands of hours consulting with scholars, in addition to mining hundreds of books and arguing among themselves. They compiled their Top 1,000 list based on a 24,000-point ranking system of their own devising.

The book ranks Joannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, No. 1 and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol as No. 1,000.

In between are many judgment calls, some easier to defend than others.

For example, the authors rank Michelangelo (No. 13) below Leonardo da Vinci (No. 9). While Michelangelo was the greatest artist of the Renaissance, Leonardo was the Renaissance, they write.

Fair enough.

But why is Paul McCartney (No. 327) rated one notch above John Lennon? Longevity?

And why do both Beatles outrank Elvis Presley (No. 352) and Duke Ellington (No. 526) — plus such political giants as Cardinal Richelieu (No. 349) and Zhou Enlai (No. 576)?

In praising Starzl, the authors note the surgeon's own sense of history. "How much more complete the world might have been," Starzl once mused, "if Mozart had been treated with renal transplantation instead of dying at the age of 35."

Mozart (No. 52), incidently, was ranked below Beethoven (No. 10). That struck a discord with Pitt linguistics professor Christina Bratt Paulston.

After Chancellor Mark Nordenberg mentioned the book and Starzl's ranking at this month's Senate Council meeting, Paulston good-naturedly protested the composers' respective rankings.

Referring to his and Paulston's shared heritage, Nordenberg suggested that she join him in combing the list for Swedes.

"Among other things," Nordenberg told Senate Council, "this kind of publication is designed to spark good-natured debate."

— Bruce Steele

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