The race to be world first

On this day, in 1967, Dr Christiaan Barnard shot to fame when he successfully performed the world's first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

By doing this, he not only led the world into an era of sophisticated medical advances, but also won an important race for South Africa.

It was generally thought that a surgeon from the USA would become the first to perform a human-to-human heart transplant. Barnard's success surprised the world and cast a warm glow over South Africa at a time when the country was internationally considered a pariah nation due to its abhorred apartheid policy.

In a sense, Barnard was lucky: the right donor became available at the right time. And he made it in the nick of time.

On 6 December 1967 – a mere three days after the historic transplant in Cape Town – Dr Adrian Kantrowitz performed the first heart transplant on an infant in Brooklyn, USA. And in January 1968, Dr Norman Shumway, who trained with Barnard at the University of Minnesota, became the first surgeon to successfully carry out an adult heart transplant in the United States.

A controversial procedure
Back in the 1960s, heart transplantation was shrouded in controversy, making it even more remarkable that the father of the 25-year-old donor Denise Darvall agreed to donate his daughter's heart the moment she was declared brain dead.

Many people believed that surgeons such as Barnard had no right to take God's work into their own hands – this much is clear from the many letters on display at the brand new Heart of Cape Town Museum at Groote Schuur Hospital:

One writer, from Chicago, addressed his letter "To the Butcher of Groote Schuur", while another, hailing from Hong Kong, called Barnard "The Prime Monster".

"S. Peschel" from Vancouver declared: "It is my profound conviction you are unmoral. A bunch of ghouls, all of you."

Another critic wrote: "Well done messer-abouter. Transplanting pays you, does it not, if not by good results, it does pay you from the money viewpoint."

And from Melbourne, Australia: “The purpose of this letter is to give notice that this day I posted a letter to the Chief Commissioner of Police, Cape Town Police Head Quarters, in which I recommend your early arrest and being charged with murder in connection with your historic heart transplant.”

Letters of praise
Despite the criticism, the world's response was overwhelmingly positive and Barnard became an instant celebrity – a role he took on with apparent ease.

Among the letters of praise at the Museum, there are several from young admirers.

In one, a child congratulates Barnard on the heart transplant, noting that it must be “the best invention since false teeth”. In another, a child asks the famous surgeon to tell her how to do a heart transplant, noting that she would like to perform the procedure on her two pigeons.

Also on display are congratulatory letters from the other leading heart surgeons of the time, such as Norman Shumway, Owen Wangensteen and Walton Lillehei.

- (Health24, December 2007)


Read more:
Heart of Cape Town Museum opens
A doctor remembers

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