Scientist Sunday: Samuel Kountz

Hey everyone! Hope you are all spending time with loved ones and having mirthful holiday celebrations. Today’s Scientist Sunday features Samuel Kountz, renowned doctor and pioneer in transplant surgery.

Samuel Kountz was born in 1930, in Lexa, one of the poorest towns in the Arkansas Delta. At eight years old, he accompanied an injured friend to the emergency room, where he watched in awe as the physicians alleviated his friend’s pain. From that moment on, he felt drawn towards the world of medicine.

Kountz’s father and grandmother supported his dream of becoming a physician, and in 1952, he graduated with a BS in chemistry from the Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College of Arkansas (AM&N), which, at the time, was for colored students only. Around this time, he met J.W. Fulbright, US Senator and former president of the University of Arkansas. Fulbright took a liking to Kountz, and urged him to apply to medical school at the University of Arkansas instead of a black medical school, as Kountz was planning.

Samuel followed Senator Fulbright’s advice, and won a competitive scholarship to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School at Little Rock, becoming the med school’s first African American student. After graduating in 1958, he interned at San Francisco General Hospital before beginning his surgical training at Stanford University.

Notable Accomplishments:

Our kidneys regulate blood composition and pressure, as well as maintain water volume and balance within our bodies.

At Stanford, Kountz studied under Dr. Roy Cohn, a trailblazer in the field of organ transplantation. In 1961, Kountz and Dr. Cohn revolutionized medicine by achieving the first kidney transplant between a recipient and donor who were not twins. This medical breakthrough threw Kountz into the spotlight. Four years later, he performed the first-ever kidney transplant in Egypt as a visiting Fulbright professor.

In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Kountz worked to enhance the science of transplant surgery. One major obstacle to transplantation is keeping the donor organ viable while it is between bodies. In 1967, Kountz helped address this issue by helping develop the prototype for the Belzer kidney perfusion machine, which can preserve kidneys for up to 50 hours after they are harvested from a human body.

Throughout his career, Dr. Kountz continued to make crucial discoveries related to organ transplants. He found that implanting a second donor kidney could save the lives of patients demonstrating early signs of organ rejection. Thereafter, he strongly advocated for the practice of re-implanting a second kidney as soon as patients displayed symptoms of rejection.

The chemical structure of methylprednisolone

Dr. Kountz also recognized that large doses of methylprednisolone, a hormone steroid, could fight off acute organ rejections, and developed protocols for the timing and dosage of anti-rejection drugs. His pioneering work with methylprednisolone has contributed to the current drug treatments administered to transplant patients. Today, in part due to Kountz’s studies of organ rejection, living kidney transplants have around a 95% success rate two years after the operation.

In 1977, on a trip to South Africa as a visiting professor, Dr. Kountz contracted a neurological disease of unknown diagnosis. As a result of the disease, Kountz suffered permanent brain damage, and became physically and mentally disabled. He died three years later, at age 51.

Why I Admire Kountz:

Samuel Kountz was raised in an impoverished household, his father a Baptist minister, and his grandmother born into slavery. As a poor, black farm boy in the South, only two generations removed from slavery, Kountz was not exactly rolling in opportunities. His circumstances seemed to dictate that he would not succeed … but against all odds, he did.

Growing up in poverty during the era of racial segregation, Kountz received inadequate schooling, attending a one-room school for much of his education. The first time he applied to AM&N, he actually failed his entrance exam. This did little damage to Kountz’s spirit, and he re-applied, this time directly to Lawrence Davis Sr., the president of the college. Davis Sr. was so impressed by Kountz’s indefatigability that he granted an exception and admitted Samuel despite his low exam scores. After taking remedial classes, Kountz entered college and thrived, eventually graduating third in his class.

Dr. Kountz showed the same tenacity when applying to med school. In a repeat of events, he was turned down from the medical school at University of Arkansas the first time he applied. For the second time in his life, Kountz demonstrated his refusal to give up in the face of rejection. He got a master’s degree in biochemistry from University of Arkansas at Fayetteville before re-applying. This time, he not only got in, but also received a selective scholarship to fund his studies. Two years later, he had received his M.D.

Samuel Kountz believed in the importance of what he was doing. He wanted to improve the lives of others, just as the doctors had done with his friend in the emergency room so many years ago. Never losing sight of that, he moved from California to Brooklyn at the height of his career to better healthcare for the poor, black community there. He later became chief of surgery at New York’s Kings County Hospital Medical Center, where he would often sit in the emergency room to observe how patients were treated.

In 1976, Kountz appeared on NBC’s Today show to perform a live kidney transplant, inspiring some 20,000 people to donate their kidneys to those in need. At the time of his death, he had carried out over 500 kidney transplants, the most kidney transplant operations performed in the world at the time.

Dr. Kountz’s story illustrates the possibility of rising above ones circumstances. Kountz had confidence in his own potential, and fought fervently for the chance to succeed. Davis Sr., the president of AM&N, took a risk in supporting Kountz. Similarly, Senator Fulbright believed in Kountz enough to encourage him to apply to University of Arkansas rather than a black medical school, against the convention of the time. These risks clearly paid off. Dr. Kountz may have been an unlikely candidate to succeed, but he persevered nonetheless. Because of his unflinching determination, he received opportunities that would enable him to advance the field of transplant surgery, and to ultimately save hundreds of lives.

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