Chris Barnard, the SA surgeon who used a kidney machine to carry out the very first heart transplant

Stephen Nartey December 06, 2022
The first human heart transplant was performed in 1967. Photo: News24/The Heart of Cape Town Museum, Wikipedia

Africa made history in the mid-1960s by pushing the frontiers of a medical breakthrough. The continent pioneered the first human heart transplant at the Charles Saint Theatre at Groote Schuur Hospital. The heart transplant surgery was conducted on a human by South African surgeon Dr. Chris Barnard on December 3, 1967, at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

The heart transplant was a result of a decade of heart surgeries Dr. Barnard and his team had been pioneering before the history-making operation. The team spent nine hours carrying out the heart transplant, as reported by South African History.

The beneficiary of the transplant was 53-year-old grocer Louis Washkansky. He was suffering from a deteriorating heart condition. Washkansky’s donor was a young lady by the name of Denise Darvall who was knocked down by a vehicle on December 2. She suffered fatal brain injuries. Her father, Edward Darvall, signed off Denise’s heart and kidneys to the medical team.

The operation commenced in the morning and was finished the next day after Washkansky was kicked back to life through electric shock. He woke up and engaged the medical team in a conversation after the heart transplant. He however died of pneumonia 18 days after the transplant.

There is a medical museum that has been set at the Groote Schuur in honor of Dr. Barnard and his team who revolutionized heart transplants. The theatre where the transplant was conducted has been renovated and reconstructed to depict the moment the heart transplant was carried out.

Dr. Barnard grew up at Beaufort West in South Africa. He was born in 1922 to a preacher. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. He was able to pursue medical education following a three-year scholarship he secured. He came from a family that was struggling financially. He lived with his older brother while schooling and trekked to the university on a daily basis.

He surmounted daunting challenges including having to survive on little funds for his upkeep as well as language barriers. His mother dialect was Afrikaans so he struggled to express himself in English. He did his internship and residency at the Groote Schuur Hospital and Peninsula Maternity after he completed his medical education.

Dr. Barnard’s passion to go the extraordinary length in his medical practice was inspired by an incident where he had to deliver one of his patients whose baby had a heart defect and there was nothing he could do about it. He was devastated about the fact that he had to watch the baby die as a result of this defect. He was looking for a medical remedy, one that was possible through surgery and the replacement of heart valves.

During his doctorate degree in medicine at Cape Town, he focused his research on heart surgery. This was at the time the heart-lung machine had been introduced in the United States medical setup but was perceived as risky for use in surgical procedures.

Dr. Barnard delved deep into heart-related research and worked at night in mini consulting rooms with less expense. The breakthrough of his career emerged when he was offered the opportunity to work in Minneapolis, USA, under Professor Wagensteen, who walked him through experimental surgery.

Before he left the United States, the heart-lung machine had been improved and it paved the way for cardiac surgery. But, Dr. Barnard saw another area to be explored with this technology, which was heart transplant.

His argument was that, if it was possible to transplant kidneys with the aid of the machine, then it was possible to do the same with the heart. When he completed his post-doctoral studies in the United States, his mentor, Prof Wagensteen, gave him a gift of the heart-lung machine.

This became the future of the heart transplant surgery he undertook at the Groote Schuur Hospital after he arrived in South Africa in 1958.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 6, 2022


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