Obituaries Section Editor: Roxanne K. Young, Associate Editor.
To understand Felix Rapaport, a man who worked
until the day of his death—April 12, 2001—from coronary artery
disease, one must know the child. Felix was a flower blown by the winds of
the most terrible and magical century in human history. His nomadic life began
idyllically on September 27, 1929. Pursued by the threat of genocide, his
family moved from Munich to Paris in 1935. When France fell to the Germans,
the Rapaport family found itself literally at sea, unable to find a port of
disembarkation until the Dominican Republic opened its doors. Displaying a
quality of character that would sustain him throughout life, Felix interpreted
the stay in Central America as a fortunate opportunity to learn his third
language. The Rapaport journey then turned north to New York City, Stuyvesant
High School, and graduation magna cum laude from New York University (NYU)
undergraduate school (1951) and medical school (1954).
As a fourth-year medical student, Rapaport nearly died of hepatitis.
As he had done before, Rapaport turned potential tragedy into triumph, aided
by Bellevue Hospital plastic surgeon John Converse, who ignited Rapaport's
interest in the still-embryonic field of transplantation. Over the next decade,
their joint activities with the New York Academy of Sciences established the
mold from which the Transplantation Society was struck. Fully recovered from
the hepatitis, Rapaport served as an officer in the US Navy and began his
long odyssey as a peerless educator, scientist, and transplant surgeon. After
training in the Department of Surgery at NYU (1958-1962) and serving as a
faculty member (1963-1977), he founded the transplantation program at Stony
Brook University Hospital (Long Island) and sustained it until his retirement
In 1998, Felix Rapaport won the Medawar Prize, the highest distinction
of the international Transplantation Society. His receipt of the prize, named
for Sir Peter Medawar, the father of modern transplantation immunology, had
special meaning because Felix was himself a professional father of sorts.
He served the Transplantation Society as Founding Secretary, Past President,
and continuous council member for 35 years and as founder and editor for 33
years of the journal Transplantation Proceedings.
Rapaport's influence on transplantation stemmed equally from his scientific
contributions. Between 1958 and 1962, he reported the first systematic study
of skin allograft rejection in humans, which suggested the possible existence
of tissue types in man. These studies in New York and subsequent ones in Paris
with Jean Dausset culminated in definition of the dog (DLA) and human (HLA)
leukocyte antigen system and defined "the laws of transplantation in both
species." When George D. Snell, Jean Dausset, and Baruch Benacerraf received
the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1980, Dausset remarked that equal credit for
his discovery of human tissue antigens should go to Rapaport. Rapaport's other
first-time observations included the tolerogenic qualities of organ allografts;
the loss of cellular immunity with malignant disease, severe trauma, and burns;
the genetic control and sex linkage of host resistance to thermal and radiation
injury; and cross-reactivity between bacterial and histocompatibility antigens.
Although full of honors at the end, Felix Rapaport considered that his
most successful transplantation procedures consisted of the donation of half
of their genes to 5 vital members of the next generation to whom the other
half was given by Margaret, his equal partner in an enduring marriage. The
children and Margaret survive him.
Starzl TE. Felix T. Rapaport, MD. JAMA. 2001;285(23):3032. doi:10.1001/jama.285.23.3032