How this south African doctor became the first to perform a successful human-to-human heart transplant 56 years ago

Ben Ebuka January 06, 2023
Christiaan Neethling Barnard -- Photo Credit: Mario De Biasi (Mondadori Publishers)

Fifty-six years ago, South African Cardiac Surgeon Christiaan Neethling Barnard performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The December 3, 1967 landmark event saw the transplant of the heart of an accident victim Denise Darvall into the heart of Louis Joshua Washkansky.

The 25-year-old Denise Darvall and her family visited some friends, and while on the road to a shopping mall, Denise and her mother, Myrtle Ann Darvall, were knocked down by a vehicle. Her mother died at the spot, while Denise had a skull fracture and severe head injuries. Denise was later declared ‘brain dead,’ but her heart was still functioning.

Louis Joshua Washkansky was a 54-year-old diabetic patient with an incurable disease. He suffered three heart attacks which led to congestive heart failure. He got informed that he had only a few weeks to live because of heart failure. He accepted the proposition of a heart transplant from Barnard.

The father of Denise Darvall gave his consent, and Denise’s heart was removed from his body. After the last anastomosis, doctors and nurses in the operating room remained apprehensive, but when the heart pulse rate counted to 100, the entire theater was overwhelmed with joy.

In 1968, Barnard performed another successful heart transplant on Philip Blaiberg. Barnard also developed a method for curing intestinal atresia. The technique saved the lives of ten babies in Cape Town. The technique was accepted and adopted by surgeons in Britain and USA.

Education and Career

Christiaan Barnard was born on November 8, 1922, in Beaufort West, Cape Province, South Africa. He died on September 2, 2001. Bernard graduated from Beaufort West High School in 1940. He graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Cape Town Medical School in 1945.

He practiced for years in South Africa before he moved to the United States in 1955, where he worked at the University of Minnesota. Barnard returned to Cape Town in 1951 and worked as the Senior Resident Medical Officer at City Hospital and as registrar at the Department of Medicine at Groote Schuur.

In 1953, he earned double degrees, a Master of Medicine, and a Doctorate in medicine from the University of Cape Town. In 1958, he became the head of the Department of Experimental Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital.

In 1960, he became a full-time lecturer and the Director of Surgical Research at the University of Cape Town. In 1961, he became the head of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Cape Town Teaching Hospital.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967, Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation. In 1968, Barnard performed a second successful heart transplant.

In 1972, Barnard became a Professor of Surgical Science in the Department of Surgery at the University of Cape Town. In 1981, he became a founding member of the World Cultural Council. In 1984, he was named Professor Emeritus.

Christiaan Barnard retired in 1983 due to rheumatoid arthritis that made him unable to continue with his surgical career.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 6, 2023


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