World’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant

Christiaan Neethling Barnard (November 8, 1922 – September 2, 2001) was a South African cardiac surgeon, famous for performing the world's first successful human-to-human heart transplant.

Following the first successful kidney transplant in 1953, in the United States, Barnard performed the first kidney transplant in South Africa in 1959. Barnard experimented for several years with animal heart transplants. More than 50 dogs received transplanted hearts. With the availability of new breakthroughs introduced by several pioneers, amongst them Norman Shumway, several surgical teams were in a position to prepare for a human heart transplant. Barnard had a patient willing to undergo the procedure, but as with other surgeons, he needed a suitable donor.

Barnard performed the world's first human heart transplant operation on 3 December 1967, in an operation assisted by his brother, Marius Barnard; the operation lasted nine hours and used a team of thirty people. The patient, Louis Washkansky, was a 54-year-old grocer, suffering from diabetes and incurable heart disease. Barnard later wrote, "For a dying man it is not a difficult decision because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water, convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side." The donor heart came from a young woman, Denise Darvall, who had been killed in a December 2, 1967, road accident while crossing a street in Cape Town. After securing permission from Darvall's father to use her heart, Barnard performed the transplant. Twenty years later, Dr. Marius Barnard recounted, "Chris stood there for a few moments, watching, then stood back and said, 'It works.’

Washkansky survived the operation and lived for eighteen (18) days. However, he succumbed to pneumonia induced by the immunosuppressive drugs he was taking. Though the first patient with the heart of another human being survived for only a little more than two weeks, Barnard had passed a milestone in a new field of life-extending surgery. Barnard later claimed that the reason he never won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was probably because he was a "white South African".

Christiaan Neethling Barnard became an international superstar overnight and was celebrated around the world for his daring accomplishment. He was quite photogenic, and enjoyed the media attention following the operation. Barnard continued to perform heart transplants. A transplant operation was conducted on 2 January 1968, and the patient, Philip Blaiberg, survived for 19 months. Dorothy Fisher was given a new heart in 1969 and became the first black recipient. She lived for 12 years 6 months after the transplant. Dirk van Zyl, who received a new heart in 1971, was the longest-lived recipient, surviving over 23 years.

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