He was a pioneer in many ways, and his work helped change the face of medicine forever, but Dr. Samuel L. Kountz, Jr., never became a household name.
In addition to becoming one of the first African-Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Kountz became a pioneer in of the most important new medical fields of the late 20th century — organ transplantation.
He was born in the small community of Lexa in northern Phillips County in 1930 to a minister father. After Kountz spent most of his early school years in a one-room school with few facilities, his father sent him to a small boarding school before transferring him to a school in Dermott, nearly 50 miles away.
He had dreams of becoming a doctor, but his path after graduating high school in 1948 was a difficult one. The state’s medical school did not yet accept African-American applicants and entering any college was a struggle. Kountz initially failed his college entrance exams for Arkansas AM&N College in Pine Bluff (the future University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). In spite of this setback, he went to the college’s president to appeal in person. The president, Lawrence Davis, was moved by his pleas and offered him conditional admission. From that point, Kountz redoubled his efforts, becoming an honor roll student. He graduated third in his class in 1952.
With the successful admission and 1952 graduation of Edith Irby from UAMS, Kountz’s own path to enrollment and a medical education was made much smoother. Kountz received a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas in 1956 and his medical degree from UAMS in 1958.
To complete his formal medical training, or residency, Kountz was assigned to San Francisco General Hospital and the prestigious Stanford University medical program in California. There, he became part of a team led by surgeon and researcher Dr. Roy Cohn, who was experimenting with kidney transplantation.
The kidney is essentially a filter in the body, separating ammonia, uric acid and other fluids to then be excreted from the body. Most people have two, and they are just over four inches long. However, injury, disease and various other complications can cause them to fail. People can usually lead healthy lives with just one, but when even that one begins to fail, it becomes a life-threatening situation. The simplicity and the efficiency of the kidney led researchers to begin experimenting with dialysis as an artificial filtration and ultimately to transplanting a new one into a patient.
The potential for medicine was limitless if the work of Cohn and Kountz was successful. After several years of experimentation and study, they were soon ready for human subjects. In 1959, Kountz assisted Cohn in one of the first kidney transplants performed in the United States.
The earliest transplants were between identical twins to avoid the problems of immune systems rejecting the new, life-saving organ. The team realized the immediate problem for the procedure since so few people had twins. For the rest of their careers, Kountz and Cohn carefully analyzed the problems of type-matching, slowly learning to overcome the problems of matching organ tissues to avoid rejection by the new body’s own immune system. By the mid-1960s, their discoveries greatly expanded the number of people who could donate a kidney to save the life of a family member or even someone who had no direct relation.
By 1970, Kountz and his team at Stanford University celebrated their 100th successful procedure. However, funding cuts in 1971 led Kountz to move to the University of California at San Francisco to continue his research as an associate professor of surgery.
At UCSF, he built a program of research and training new surgeons, which became one of the most respected in the nation. He earned great respect from his colleagues, even being named as a Fellow to the American College of Surgeons and serving as president of the Society of University Surgeons in 1974. He would eventually perform or assist in performing 500 transplants. By the time Kountz died in 1981, nearly 4,000 kidney transplants were being performed annually in the United States thanks to techniques he helped develop.
Today, kidney transplants are almost routine. Patients receiving transplanted kidneys now have survival rates of nearly 98 percent the first year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Nearly 20,000 kidney transplants are performed each year in the United States alone in a process that has now saved countless lives.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.