Chris Barnard Performs World's First Heart Transplant

(Department of Health, Western Cape Government)

The World's First Heart Transplant


Mr Washkansky

Groote Schuur Hospital was placed centre stage in the world's spotlight when Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant on the third of December 1967. Sadly, Mr Louis Washkansky (pictured left) only lived for 18 days, succumbing in the end to pneumonia. His new heart beat strongly to the end.

Transplanting Life - the Story of Chris Barnard


Chris Barnard

Christiaan Neethling Barnard was born in the town of Beaufort West, on the edge of the great Karoo, the dry and arid interior of South Africa, in 1922. His father was a preacher and there were 4 boys in the family. He did well at school , learned music and played sport, and decided on leaving school to study medicine at the University of Cape Town.

The Barnard family was not wealthy but managed to secure a 3 year scholarship. He stayed with his older brother and walked to the University. There was little money to spare and even less time for leisure. Another problem was language, as his mother tongue was Afrikaans, and he had to learn to express himself in English. After 6 years he graduated and did internship and residency at Groote Schuur Hospital and Peninsula Maternity. He then joined a colleague and moved to a small town, Ceres, and married Louwtjie.

The seeds of his future career were sown when one of his patients delivered a baby boy with a heart defect which could not be remedied. The baby died, causing him to think deeply about this and foresee the need for remedial surgery and the replacement of heart valves.

Back in Cape Town he studied further for his doctorate in Medicine, but heart surgery pre-occupied him. The heart-lung machine was in its infancy in the USA and considered too dangerous to use in surgical procedures. Chris proceeded with research and more study, working in converted rooms at night at minimal expense.

A turning point came when he was offered a chance to work in Minneapolis, USA, under Professor Wagensteen, a great teacher of experimental surgery. The heart lung machine was perfected and this was the gateway to cardiac surgery. The idea of transplanting occurred to Chris. If it was possible with kidneys, why not the heart? After more years of study in USA he returned to SA with a wonderful parting gift from Prof Wagensteen - a heart-lung machine.

Groote Schuur Hospital was waiting his return in 1958 to start the first heart unit to perform a cardiac bypass operation. The core of the heart transplant team of the future was formed when the heart lung machine arrived. Chris was again involved in much experimental work and research, and took courses in immunology in USA where immuno -suppressive agents had been developed.

Transplant Prelude

Back in SA he prepared for kidney transplants and built up surgical expertise. From the legal aspect there had to be clear rules to remove organs from the human body and criterion of death. He performed the first kidney transplant at Groote Schuur on Mrs Edith Black and everything functioned perfectly. It was hailed as a major surgical event in SA. Professor Val Schrire, who had built up the Cardiac Clinic, was informed by Chris in October 1967:"Everything is ready for a heart transplant. We have the team and we know how to do it."

In November Prof Schrire called Chris and told him that there was a suitable patient for a heart transplant. Louis Washkansky was suffering from gross heart failure with a short time to live and was prepared to take the chance. One can say the rest is history. A series of events were set in motion which led to the first human heart transplant, a remarkable feat

A young woman, Denise Darvall, had been struck by a car and suffered severe brain damage. Her father did not hesitate when approached for permission to donate her organs. On 3 December 1967 the team emerged from 9 hours of operating and suddenly international attention was focused on Groote Schuur Hospital. The first heart transplant could not have been achieved without the skill and support of a large team - Cardiologists, Radiologists, Anaesthetists, Technicians, Nurses, Immunologists, Pathologists, and in particular, Prof Val Schrire, head of the Cardiac Clinic.

The original theatre where this transplant was performed has been turned into a museum in honour of these pioneers of medicine, and to the first donor and recipient.

Professor Christiaan Barnard passed away in Cyprus, Greece on 2 September 2001 from an acute asthma attack.

The content on this page was last updated on 15 March 2014