A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Christiaan Barnard
1922 -

"On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday, I was world renowned." That's how Dr. Christiaan Barnard recalled events in December of 1967, when he became the first surgeon to perform a heart transplant on a human being.

Barnard was the son of a rather poor Afrikaner preacher and his wife, and grew up in Beaufort West, a town on South Africa's semi-arid Great Karroo plateau. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town and at the University of Minnesota. In Minneapolis he began helping researchers who were working on a heart-lung machine, and soon switched his specialty from general surgery to cardiology and cardiothoracic (heart-lung) surgery.

By 1967, Barnard was senior cardiothoracic surgeon at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, where he had introduced open heart surgery and other pioneering surgical procedures. He had spent many years experimenting with heart transplantation, mostly with dogs. The first successful kidney transplant had been done in 1954, opening this exciting surgical frontier. Barnard had a patient, 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, who had diabetes and incurable heart disease. Washkansky could either wait for certain death or risk transplant surgery with an 80 percent chance of surviving. He chose the surgery. As Barnard later wrote, "For a dying man it is not a difficult decision because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side. But you would never accept such odds if there were no lion."

Early in December of 1967, Denise Darvall, a woman in her mid-20s, was fatally injured in an automobile accident. She had had the same blood type as Washkansky. She died shortly after arriving at the hospital, but her heart was still healthy. In a five-hour operation on December 3, Barnard successfully replaced Washkansky's diseased heart with the healthy heart. He knew it was a surgical success when he first applied electrodes and it resumed beating. Washkansky lived for only 18 days more, dying of double pneumonia as a result of his suppressed immune system. It was a milestone, however, in a new field of life-extending surgery.

Barnard was celebrated around the world for his daring accomplishment. Handsome and only 45 years old at the time, he graced the covers of magazines, toured the world, and became quite a popular figure. He enjoyed his fame, but it strained his marriage of 21 years. His first wife was a nurse who had helped support him while he developed his career as a surgeon. They were divorced in 1969, and Barnard married his second wife the following year. This marriage, too, ended after 12 years. He married for a third time. He had five children, spanning 32 years, but one of his sons died at age 31.

Barnard had been bothered by rheumatoid arthritis since he was young, and advancing stiffness in his hands forced his retirement from surgery in 1983. He took up writing, however, and wrote a cardiology text, a (sometimes sensational) autobiography, and several novels, including a thriller about organ transplants. He lives on a 32,000 acre sheep farm and game preserve in the Karroo region where he grew up, where he reintroduced wildebeest and springbok. He has just two regrets in his long and eventful career. First, he endorsed an "anti-ageing" skin cream in 1986, which turned out to be of dubious effectiveness and was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1987. Although his endorsement made him a great deal of money, it tarnished his medical reputation. His only other regret was not fighting harder against South Africa's policy of apartheid. "I opposed it whenever I could," he said. "But I didn't stick my neck out."

Home | People and Discoveries Menu | Help

WGBH | PBS Online | Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1998 WGBH