By: Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

Prof. Christiaan Neethling Barnard (see Fig.1) famously known as Chris Barnard was a South African cardiac surgeon who did the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation in the 1960s. Chris Barnard was born in Beaufort West, Western Cape Province, South Africa, on 8 November 1922. Barnard matriculated from the Beaufort West High School in 1940. He subsequently pursued his studies in medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Medical School, where he obtained his MB ChB in 1945. He practiced medicine for many years in Cape Town. During Barnard’s early career as a young surgeon, he did some experiments on dogs while investigating intestinal atresia in neonates. Barnard received a grant to advance his surgical experience overseas, which exposed him to a new field of heart-lung studies. The studies eventually led to Barnard becoming a top heart transplantation pioneer.


Figure 1. Dr Chris Barnard (Source Image: UCT Health Sciences).


Barnard travelled to the United States of America (US) in 1955, where he was initially assigned more work on the human intestines at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis under the legendary Prof Owen Harding Wangensteen. It is here where Barnard was introduced to the heart-lung machine (pump oxygen generator). He was also granted permission to transfer the services run by open heart surgery pioneer Walton Lillehei and later developed a special interest in the study of the heart. Some sources reveal that the US’s National Institution of Health (NH) funded Barnard to bring the heart-lung machine to South Africa.


Figure 2. An early open-heart operation at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town during the 1960s (Source Image: Cooper DKC, July 2018).


Upon Barnard’s return to South Africa in 1958, he was appointed Head of the Department (HOD) of Experimental Surgery at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Barnard flew to Moscow in 1960, to meet Vladimir Demikhov a top Soviet Russian scientist and organ transplantation pioneer. “If there is a father of heart-lung transplantation then Demikhov certainly deserves this title” – Chris Barnard credited Vladimir Demikhov’s achievements.

Barnard got another appointment as Head of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the teaching hospital of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1961. He was promoted to full-time lecturer and Director of Surgical Research at UCT. He rose to Associate Professor in the Dept of Surgery at UCT in 1962. He was promoted to Professor of Surgical Science in the Dept of Surgery at UCT in 1972. Dr Marius Barnard a younger brother of Chris Barnard, who also studied medicine, finally became Chris Barnard’s right-hand man at the Department of Cardiac Surgery. Marius was part of Chris Barnard’s team that undertook the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation.

Dr Hamilton Naki assisted Prof. Chris Barnard in his organ transplant programme. Naki was a self-taught South African surgeon. Naki’s career began as a gardener and cleaner at Groote Schuur Hospital. He had an opportunity to assist with an experiment on a giraffe. From this humble beginning, he rose to principal lab technician and taught numerous surgeons. He played a vital role in Barnard’s surgical and organ transplant career.

“Hamilton Naki had better technical skills than I did. He was a better craftsman than me, especially when it came to stitching, and had very good hands in the theatre. A liver transplant is much more difficult than a heart transplant. Doctors who work with Naki informed me that Naki can do all sorts of liver transplantations, which I can’t do. So technically, he is a better surgeon than I am.”- Chris Barnard endorsing Hamilton Naki’s technical skills in organ transplants.


Figure 3. Denise Darvall the first heart donor (Source Image: South African History Online).


James Hardy: World’s first chimpanzee-to-human heart xenotransplant

James Hardy did the world’s first heart transplant at the University of Mississippi Medical Centre in Jackson, Mississippi on 23 January 1964. Hardy transplanted the heart of a chimpanzee into the chest of Boyd Rush (a dying patient). The heart in Rush’s chest beat for around 60-90 minutes. Rush died without regaining consciousness.


Figure 4. Dr Barnard congratulating Mr Louis Washkansky after the heart transplant in 1967 (Source Image: TimesLIVE).


Chris Barnard: World’s first human-to-human heart transplant

On the 3rd of December 1967 Chris Barnard did the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur

Hospital. The donor heart came from 25-year-old accident victim, Ms Denise Darvall (see Fig. 3). The receiver was 54-year-old Louis Washkansky (see Fig.4). Barnard assured Mr and Mrs Washkansky that the heart transplant had an 80% chance of success. Mr Washkansky regained full consciousness but lived only 18 days before he died of pneumonia.


Figure 5. Dr Phillip Blaiberg, Barnard’s second heart transplant patient (Source Image: Heinemann).


Barnard’s second heart transplant operation was done in 1968 on a dentist, Dr Philip Blaiberg (see Fig.5). Blaiberg survived the operation and lived for another 18 months. Barnard performed the third heart transplant on Ms Dorothy Fischer (40 years old) in 1969. Fischer survived the heart transplant operation and lived another twelve and a half years. Between December 1967 and November 1974 ten heart transplant operations and one heart-lung transplantation (1971) were performed at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Of these ten patients, only four patients lived longer than 18 months, with two of these becoming long-term survivors.


Figure 6. The Barnard-Goosen prosthetic heart valve designed by Chris Barnard and heart-lung technician, Carl Goosen (Source Image: Cooper DKC).


Prof Chris Barnard and his chief technician Dr Carl Goosen of the UCT invented a cardiology prosthetic artificial heart valve in 1962 (see Fig. 6). Later, in 1981, Barnard became a founding member of the World Cultural Council in. He retired as HOD of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Groote Schuur in 1983 after developing rheumatoid arthritis in his hands which concluded his surgical career.


Among the recognitions Barnard received through the years, he was named Professor Emeritus in 1984. He became known as a brilliant surgeon with many contributions to the treatment of cardiac diseases. Barnard wrote two autobiographies: the first book, One Life, was published in 1969 and sold copies worldwide. A portion of the profits from this book was used to establish the Chris Barnard Fund for research into heart disease and heart transplants in Cape Town. Barnard’s second autobiography, The Second Life, was published in 1993. During his post-retirement Barnard devoted his life to consultant research internationally. He managed to launch the Chris Barnard Foundation in Australia. Chris Barnard died on 2 September 2001, while on holiday in Paphos, Cyprus. Early reports speculated that his death was due to a heart attack. Subsequently a post-mortem exposed that Barnard’s death was caused by a severe asthma attack. In his memory, the following entities were erected and named after him: the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town and the Dr Chris Barnard Museum in Beaufort West, where he grew up.

Works cited

Blaiberg P. 1969. ‘Looking At My Heart.’ Heinemann

Cooper DKC. ‘Christiaan Barnard -The surgeon who dared: The story of the first human-to-human heart transplant.’ Global Cardiology Science and Practice. Also available at:  Accessed 25 January 2024.

Fox M. 2005. ‘Hamilton Naki, Self-taught surgeon, dies.’ Also available at: New York Times 11 June 2005. Retrieved 17 March 2024.

UCT Faulty of Health Science. ‘50th anniversary of the first human heart transplant’. Also available at: Retrieved 13 January 2024.


Christiaan Barnard-Wikipedia.’ Also available at: Retrieved 20 January 2024.

Hamilton Naki-Wikipedia’. Also available at:  Retrieved 15 February 2024. 

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