Christiaan Neethling Barnard

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Christiaan Neethling Barnard


South African Surgeon

Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa. Barnard's surgery focused attention on the rapidly developing field of organ transplantation and sparked social and philosophical debates concerning the ethics of transplantation. Following Barnard's pioneering efforts, more than 30,000 human heart transplants have been completed worldwide.

Barnard was born in Beaufort West, which is in the Cape of Good Hope province of South Africa. Barnard studied medicine at The University of Cape Town, where he received an M.D. in 1953. Shortly afterwards, Barnard left South Africa to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1958. While in Minnesota, Barnard was trained by C. Wallton Lillehei (1918-1999), who is considered the "father" of open-heart surgery. Barnard changed his specialty from general to cardiothoracic surgery and assisted Lillehei's team with research, which led to the development of the first heart-lung machine. The development of the heart-lung machine, a device that pumps oxygenated blood throughout the patient's body, allowed Barnard and his colleagues to immobilize the heart during surgery long enough to complete complex repairs.

In 1958 Barnard returned to South Africa and taught surgery at the University of Cape Town. Subsequently, Barnard became director of surgical research at the Groote Schuur Hospital, where he introduced open-heart surgery, designed artificial heart valves, and engineered surgical protocols for several heart procedures. After years of research and experimentation with canine heart transplantation, Barnard, who, by 1967, was senior cardiothoracic surgeon at Groote Schuur, felt confident that the time was right to attempt the first human heart transplant.

Barnard's confidence was based on more than a decade of advances in organ transplantation. In 1954 surgeons in Boston had broken the human transplantation barrier when they transplanted a kidney from one identical twin to another. By 1963, success with kidney transplants had increased dramatically with the development of drugs that suppressed the body's immune response. These innovations, along with the development of the heart-lung machine, set the stage for Barnard's attempt to transplant a human heart.

On December 3, 1967, Barnard removed the diseased heart of 55-year-old Louis Washkansky in a five-hour operation. Barnard and his team of physicians and nurses then transplanted a healthy heart into Washkansky. The donor heart was obtained from 25-year-old Denise Darvall, who had died earlier at the hospital from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Washkansky survived 18 days after the transplant, dying from pneumonia as a result of an immune system that had been suppressed to prevent rejection of the donor heart.

Barnard performed his second heart transplant on Philip Blaiberg on January 2, 1968. Blaiberg achieved fame as a symbol of hope for victims of heart disease. He survived 563 days after the operation. Based on this success, Barnard continued to develop and refine surgical techniques for the burgeoning field of heart transplantation. It was not until the early 1980s, however, with the advent of cyclosporin and other "next-generation" antirejection drugs, that the heart transplantation procedure became widely accepted. Research into cardiothoracic surgery continues in the laboratories of the Christiaan Barnard Building at the University of Cape Town.

In 1983, as rheumatoid arthritis interfered with the dexterity of his hands, Barnard retired from surgery. He has authored a cardiology text and several novels. In addition, he is the author of Heart Attack: You Don't Have to Die and an autobiography , One Life. Barnard lives near his boyhood home on a 32,000-acre ranch on South Africa's Karroo plateau.


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Christiaan Neethling Barnard