Christian Barnard’s place in medial history is based on the fact that Barnard performed the first open heart transplant in history. In 2002 such operations are common but in the late 1960’s operations on the heart were rarely performed because of the risk of death and heart transplants were unheard of. Christian Barnard was a pioneer of organ transplants and he must be placed alongside the likes of Pasteur, Lister, Koch, Fleming, Florey and Jenner in any list of medical giants.

Christian Barnard was born in South Africa in 1922. He worked as a surgeon at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. After further training in America, he became a leading heart surgeon.

Barnard studied heart surgery at the University of Minnesota in the US and returned to South Africa to set up a cardiac unit in Cape Town. In December 1967 he transplanted the heart of a road accident victim into a 59 year old man, Louis Washkansky. This was the first operation of its kind and made Barnard a household name worldwide – fame that took him by surprise. Asked to describe his feelings after the Washkansky transplant, Barnard said:

“Not very much. It was a natural progression of open heart surgery. We did not think it was a great event and there was no special feeling. I was happy when I saw the heart beating again. We did not stand up or cheer or something like that. I didn’t even inform the hospital authorities that I was going to do the operation.”


 Unfortunately, Washkansky died 18 days later from pneumonia. The drugs used to prevent the body rejecting the new heart adversely weakened his resistance to infection.

One of Barnard’s patients lived for over a year and a half after surgery, but patients needed drugs to prevent the body rejecting the donor heart. These left them open to infection and many died, just like Louis Washkansky. After a while, all heart operations stopped because the risk of failure was considered too high.

In 1974 a researcher working in Norway discovered a new drug called cyclosporin. This drug helped to overcome the body’s rejection of the donor organs and protected the patient against infection. Subsequent heart transplants were more successful and since the late 1980s, the majority of patients have survived for more than two years after surgery.

Barnard had demonstrated that heart transplants were possible. Even though many of his patients died soon after their operation, he had taken the first steps into a new form of surgery which is now routine in medical practice. In 1974, Christian Barnard carried out the first double heart transplant. He ended his career in surgery because of the impact of arthritis. 

Barnard died in 2001.

What is your biggest achievement in life?“It’s difficult to say. If you ask me what I would like to be remembered for, I would not say the transplants but the surgery. I have performed on children with abnormal hearts. It is much more difficult than transplantation and much more satisfying. With the surgical facilities we give a child a chance to lead a normal life.”