Christiaan Barnard was born into a humble, modest home in Beaufort West on 8 November 1922. His father, Adam, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. The family was ostracized by the whites in town when Chris and his siblings were growing up. This was because their father was very popular in the Coloured community where he preached. This was frowned upon due to the racial tensions of the time.
His mother, Maria, was strict and threatened to whip the children if they underperformed. It is possible that she was so strict due to the loss of one of her children at a young age from a heart problem. She also gave birth to a stillborn child.
It is possible that the reason Christiaan pursued cardiology was a result of his brother’s death.
Barnard’s family made certain that each one of their children received a good education despite financial troubles. He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. In 1946, he graduated with a MBCHb degree. Barnard interned at the Groote Schuur Hospital. After this, he worked as a general practioner in the fruit-farming town of Ceres.
In 1956, Barnard left for the University of Minnesota after receiving a recommendation from John Brock. It was here that he worked with open-heart surgery pioneer, Walt Lillehei. Barnard completed his MSC and PHD on cardio-thoracic surgery in Minnesota. A PHD in surgery usually required six years, whereas Barnard did it in just two! He returned to South Africa in 1958.
In 1960, he went to the Soviet Union to study transplant techniques using dogs. He returned the following year and headed up the Department of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at the University of Cape Town. He gained a very good reputation along with his brother, Marius. Marius was also a cardiac surgeon and was Christiaan’s right-hand man at the university.
The First Human-to-Human Heart Transplant
Louis Washkansky was a 54 year old South African grocer. He suffered from diabetes and incurable heart disease. He had just suffered his third heart attack. After examining him, Barnard came to the conclusion that nothing could be done to help him.
Barnard explained to him the possibility of a heart transplant. This boosted his spirits. Barnard told Waskansky and his wife, Ann, that the operation had an 80% chance of success. This claim has been highly criticized and termed “misleading”.
Previously there had only ever been a transplant of a chimpanzee heart in to a human. This was done by James Hardy to Boyd Rush. Rush’s heart beat for approximately an hour, after which, he died.
The right donor candidate came along when Denise Davell and her mom were hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street. She was 25 years old and declared brain dead. Her father gave the go ahead for the procedure.
The procedure took place at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. The transplant team consisted of thirty surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses, and technicians. They worked through the night and at 05:52 am they declared the operation a success. It lasted 5 hours. Unfortunately Louis died 18 days later from pneumonia.
This was a result of immunosuppressants which were pumped into him to ensure his body did not reject the heart.
Fame and Success
Barnard’s groundbreaking operation brought him considerable fame and as a result his marriages suffered. He would go on to marry 3 times and divorced all three. He was nominated for the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine, however he did not win. He later stated that the reason he never won was because he was a white South African at a time when South Africa was being isolated from the world.
He went on to perform the first double heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1974. He eventually developed arthritis in his hands and had to retire from surgery. Following this, he toured the world giving lectures and devoted himself to further medical research.
On 2 September 2001, Christiaan Barnard died aged 78. At the time, he was on holiday in Cyprus, Greece. The cause of death was a severe asthma attack.