This Day in World History
December 3, 1967
Barnard performs first heart transplant
For five hours, the thirty-person surgical team worked in an operating room in Cape Town, South Africa. The head surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, was leading the team into uncharted territory, transplanting the heart of a young woman killed in a car accident into the chest of 55-year-old Louis Washkansky. As the operation neared to a close, Barnard used electrodes to stimulate the heart. It began pumping, and the team knew they had succeeded. The operation was not the first organ transplant—kidney transplants had been performed for more than ten years. In transplanting the heart, though, Barnard pushed medicine into a new phase.
“On Saturday,” Barnard remembered later, “I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday I was world-renowned.” The recipient, 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, lived only eighteen days after the surgery before dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, Barnard had revolutionized cardiac care. The surgeon improved his heart transplant techniques over the years such that some patients lived for several years after surgery. He also experimented with new techniques, including using artificial heart valves and using hearts from monkeys as a stopgap measure for some patients.
Along with his medical breakthroughs, Barnard challenged social conventions. His second heart transplant roused controversy in his native land because the recipient was white and the donor was “coloured”—the term under South Africa’s apartheid system for a person of mixed white and black ancestry. Over the years, Barnard became more outspoken about the rights of black South Africans, putting his reputation behind the end of apartheid. He also became somewhat controversial for his obvious enjoyment of his celebrity status and for, late in life, trying to find ways to reverse aging.
Barnard will be most remembered, though, as a bold surgeon looking to expand the boundaries of medicine.