By Tom Dare
THE FASCINATING STORY of the surgeon who defied the doubters to successfully perform the first ever heart transplant in 1963 has been told in a new book about his life.
Images from ‘Christiaan Barnard: The Surgeon Who Dared’ by David Cooper show the ground-breaking surgeon hard at work in the operating theatre during an open-heart surgery, while another captures the first ever recipient of a heart transplant, Louis Washkansky, shortly after he woke up from the operation.
In other images Barnard, whose phenomenal feats soon made him a worldwide celebrity, can be seen mingling with famous faces such as Princess Diana, Mohammed Ali and former American President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The book, written by one of Barnard’s former colleagues, charts the rise and fall of the enigmatic surgeon, from his humble beginnings in a small South African town to successfully performing the first ever heart transplant.
Though his first patient sadly died just nine days after the surgery, Barnard continued with his work undeterred, with his next patient, Philip Blaiberg, surviving for 19 months following his transplant in early 1968. Though around 100 transplants were attempted across the world following Barnard’s success, the average lifespan for a patient following the surgery was three months.
David Cooper, the book’s author, worked with Barnard during his time in surgery, and describes him as an ‘unforgettable character’
“Christiaan Barnard, who led the surgical team that stunned the world by performing the first human-to-human heart transplant on the night of 2–3 December 1967, literally became famous overnight,” he writes.
“The daring operation captured the public’s imagination as no other before or since, and Barnard became one of the best-known people in the world.
“This was in part because heart transplantation had a dramatic and mystical aura about it, but was equally a response to Barnard’s youthful good looks and charismatic personality, which naturally drew people’s attention to him. This life-changing operation ensured not only his place in medical history, but worldwide public recognition for a number of years.
“It is unlikely that any physician or surgeon either before or after him has been so widely recognised by the average man in the street. Within days, his face appeared on the covers of Life, Newsweek, and Time magazines. He quickly became in enormous demand as a speaker, both at professional medical congresses and at lay events, and he was soon treated in many ways more as a showbusiness personality—a celebrity—than as a distinguished surgeon.
“He travelled widely, meeting presidents, popes, and prime ministers, as well as other notables and celebrities. At one time, it was claimed that his name and face were the most recognised in the world, perhaps with the exception of the boxer Muhammad Ali.
“However, he had a number of faults, and some of the actions he took in his life were contentious. This charismatic yet complex and controversial character was aptly summed up by heart surgeon, Bob Frater, who had been a colleague of Barnard in Cape Town before moving to New York.
Frater wrote: ‘He was then, at once, rough-at-the-edges poor boy and charming sophisticate, democrat and tyrant, selfless healer and boorish egotist, lover and Don Juan, shrewd parvenu, and naive acceptor of glitterati adulation—but, above all, surgical visionary and simply the most unforgettable character of the second generation of cardiac surgeons.’
“Personally, having first met Barnard in the 1960s, worked with him for several years in South Africa and subsequently in the USA, and maintained contact with him until his death in 2001, I readily admit that he was, without doubt, the ‘most unforgettable character’ I have met in my relatively long life.”