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Christiaan Barnard and the beating heart

Sunday, 3 December, 2017

It’s one of those milestones that demands the time traveller must halt before it for a while and ponder the nature of life and death. We’re talking heart transplantation. On this day in 1967, the South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant. Despite the absence of the internet, the news reached the four corners of the world in quick time and McLuhan’s global village was electrified by the implications.

Looking back, the most significant aspect of what Christiaan Barnard did on that 3 December morning in the Groote Schur Hospital in Cape Town was not the insertion of a beating heart in the chest of Louis Washkansky but the removal of a beating heart from the chest of Denise Darvall. She was the donor, he was the recipient and the two were united as never before in human history. The medical innovations and breakthroughs that enabled Barnard to risk the transplant had been done in the United States by cardiac pioneers such as Thomas Starzl, Norman Shumway, Richard Lower and James Hardy, but what these scientists and surgeons had not done was remove a beating heart from the body of a one human being and transplant it into the body of another human being. Christiaan Barnard They were not allowed to do so by the ethics of their profession and the laws of the land.

Christiaan Barnard could do what he did because no one prevented him from doing so. The real revolution that he sparked, however, was not clinical but moral. It set in train a vital debate on the definition of life and, especially, death, which had centred on the notion of the beating heart. And, especially, it gave the concept of organ donation a relevance that continues to resonate. Christiaan Barnard was standing on the shoulders of giants when he conducted the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967, but he was that man who did it and everyone in possession of a beating heart should pause for a moment today and think of his courage.

“For a dying man it is not a difficult decision [to agree to become the world’s first heart transplant] … 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. But you would not accept such odds if there were no lion.” — Christiaan Barnard (1922 – 2001)


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