Famous cardiac surgeon
Lives of Courage
Professor Chris Barnard led the team which performed the first human-to-human heart transplantation operation at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town.
The son of a missionary, he was born into very modest circumstances in 1922 in Beaufort West on the edge of South Africa’s arid interior region called the Great Karoo. He was one of four sons, one of whom died at a young age due to a heart problem. Learning music and playing sport, young Chris did well at school.
After he studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, his first practice was at Ceres, also in the Cape Province. In 1956, he went to Minnesota University to study cardio-thoracic surgery and congenital intestinal atresia and after obtaining an MSc and a PhD he returned to Cape Town in mid-1958. He was appointed lecturer and director of surgical research under Professor J H Louw at Groote Schuur Hospital. Barnard was responsible for introducing in Cape Town the cardiopulmonary bypass (open-heart) surgery and he pursued the concept of intensive-care nursing of patients following major surgical procedures. In 1960, with the support of a bursary from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, he went to the Soviet Union to study transplant techniques of hearts and heads on dogs.
The following year he was appointed head of the cardio-thoracic surgery departments at the teaching hospitals of the University of Cape Town. From 1962, he was responsible for the development and introduction of the UCT mitral and aortic valve prostheses, which have since been used for replacement of grossly diseased valves in patients all over the world. Barnard became noted for outstanding surgical results in cases of congenital heart disease.
For the world-renowned heart operation, a team of thirty surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses, and technicians was required at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. At 5:52 a.m. on Sunday 3 December 1967, Professor Barnard and his team completed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant operation. They used the heart of a young woman, Denise Darvall, who was killed in a motor accident, on Louis Washkansky, whose heart was grossly enlarged. The operation lasted five hours and the patient survived, but he developed a lung infection and died of pneumonia eighteen days after the epoch-making operation. This had been brought on by the immuno-suppressive therapy, which reduced the possibility of rejection of the donor organ but weakened the defence mechanisms within the body. Professor Barnard performed the first kidney transplant done at Groote Schuur Hospital the same year.
The brilliance of his surgery was never disputed, but some medical critics of heart transplants pointed to the high fatality rate among patients and argued that his pioneer work had been premature, as too little was known at the time about the body's rejection of transplanted tissues. Barnard maintained these operations were justified if they lengthened people's lives.
Barnard's second heart transplant operation was performed on 2 January 1968 almost a month after the first, this time on Dr Philip Blaaiberg, whose dauntless spirit made him a national hero in his own right. Blaiberg lived for twenty months. Surgeons worldwide followed Barnard's lead, and by October 1971 recorded heart transplants numbered 178. Twenty-seven patients had survived, but only five of these had lived longer than three years. Forty-year-old Mrs Dorothy Fischer was given a new heart in 1969 and became the longest surviving patient. Shortly after performing his first two historic operations Barnard made it known that he was suffering from arthritis; his hands were becoming crippled at the joints.
Professor Barnard has traveled widely giving lectures and interviews. He was proposed for the 1968 Nobel Prize for medicine but did not win the award. He was appointed professor in the department of surgery at the University of Cape Town in 1972. He performed the first double heart transplantation operation at Groote Schuur Hospital on 25 November 1974. FÁªted and honoured with seventy-one fellowships, honorary degrees, awards and decorations from many countries, the media sought him for his talents, zest for life and forthright views were always newsworthy. As an unofficial ambassador for South Africa, he won many friends. He did much to promote insight into the problems of death and dying. The question of whether to allow a patient to die naturally or to prolong an ebbing life artificially is fraught with clinical and emotional complexities. Although the medical association is officially against euthanasia, Barnard won international respect for his plea to request governments to legitimize it. He always contended that the quality of life should influence the ultimate decision.
Barnard was married and divorced three times. In 1948 he married his first wife, Aletta (Louwtjie) Louw. They were divorced in 1969. They had two children, Deidre (now Visser) and a son Andre, who died in 1984. In 1970 he married the 19 year old Barbara Zoellner. Two sons, Frederick and Christiaan were born from the marriage. Barnard and Barbara were divorced in 1982 and in 1988 he was married to Karin Setzkorn, more than forty years his junior. They had two children, Lara and Armin, and were divorced in 2000.
Professor Christiaan Barnard died on 2 September 2001 from a severe asthma attack while on holiday in Cyprus, Greece.
• Howcroft, P. (undated).