The First Heart Transplant

On 3rd December 1967 in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant. The procedure involved a cardiothoracic team of 30 and lasted nine hours! At the “Heart of Cape Town Museum” in South Africa, visitors can see recreations of the original operating rooms.

The patient was Louis Washkansky, a grocer in his 50s. Washkansky’s new heart came from Denise Duvall, a 20-year-old declared brain dead after being struck by a drunk driver the day before. Her father, Edward, consented to the donation of Duvall’s heart and kidneys. Washkansky survived for eighteen days following his surgery, but then died of pneumonia. Barnard’s second patient lived 19 months, and his fifth and sixth heart transplant recipients survived 13 and 24 years respectively!  

As the news spread, condemnation poured in from around the world Hong Kong, the USA, France, etc. Brain death was not legally or ethically considered the end of life in many countries as it was in South Africa at the time. Some felt Barnard took an organ from a “living” person to give to another: one letter read, “You had the audacity to assume the authority of God by pretending to become the giver of life.” Scientists, however, welcomed the successful operation as a breakthrough in cardiothoracic surgery.

The surgery was also significant within the political context of apartheid. South Africa’s government eagerly used Barnard and news of his success as a distraction from its racist domestic policies. Moreover, race was a factor in the surgeries themselves. A viable heart had been available for Barnard weeks earlier; however, he declined to use it because the donor was a coloured man, and it would have been controversial to put a Black person’s heart in a White man’s body.

By Nnenna Onuoha

(Image: Science Museum UK)

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