Louis Washkansky

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The world’s first human heart transplant recipient.

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Of Lithuanian Jewish extraction, Louis Washkansky came to South Africa aged 9, and became a grocer in Cape Town’s Greenpoint area. Washkansky saw active service in WW2 in East and North Africa and Italy. His wife Ann, he met and married after the war.

He was keen on soccer, swimming and weightlifting and lived an active life until his first heart attack. In 1965 a third and very severe heart attack left him suffering from congestive cardiac failure. The effects of this were huge cardiac swelling, irregular heartbeat, extreme shortness of breath, a heart incapable of maintaining normal output so that his body slowly starved of food and oxygen. His death became imminent, and a donor, Denise Darvall was located.

The operation itself, performed by Professor Chris Barnard and a team of 30 was a surgical success. Unfortunately, immuno-suppressant drugs aimed at preventing the body’s natural rejection of the ‘foreign’ material of his new heart, compromised his capacity to resist infection. After gaining consciousness and strength post-operatively, he was able to talk and on occasion, to walk. He then deteriorated however, and later died of pneumonia 18 days after the heart transplant.

• Joyce, P. (1999). A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Francolin, p.280.
• Malan, M. (1968). Heart Transplant: The Story Of Barnard and the “Ultimate In Cardiac Surgery”, Johannesburg: Voortrekkerspers.

Last updated : 12-Aug-2016

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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