Home Facts Famous South Africans: Chris Barnard

Famous South Africans: Chris Barnard


Christiaan Barnard was born in 1922 in Beaufort West, South Africa. He finished high school in 1940 in Beaufort West and went on to study medicine at the University of Cape Town. He obtained his MB Chb (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1945. Chris Barnard did his internship at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. After this he was a general practitioner in Ceres (a rural town in the Western Cape province of South Africa).

He returned to Cape Town in 1951. In 1953 he completed his Master’s Degree at the University of Cape Town. In the same year he has rewarded with his doctorate at the same university in medicine (MD) for a dissertation entitled “The treatment of tuberculous meningitis”. Chris Barnard received a 2 year scholarship for postgraduate training in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in the United States in 1956. He became acquainted with Norman Shumway who did pioneering research leading to the first human heart transplant. He was awarded his Master of Science in Surgery for a thesis entitled “The aortic valve – problems in the fabrication and testing of a prosthetic valve” in 1958. Barnard was appointed cardiothoracic surgeon at the Groote Schuur Hospital and also established the hospital’s first heart unit.


In October 1967, he performed the first Kidney transplant operation in South Africa. He wanted to attempt the world’s first heart transplant operation after experimenting in animal heart transplantation for years. He had a patient who was willing to undergo the operation, but was still in search of a suitable donor. In December 1967 a young woman, Denise Darvall was killed in a road accident whilst crossing the street in Cape Town. Chris Barnard secured permission from the young woman’s farmer to use her heart in his planned transplant operation. On the 3rd of December 1967 Chris Barnard, along with his brother Marius Barnard and a team of 30 people performed the world’s first heart transplant operation. The operation took 9 hrs to finish. His patient, Louis Washkansky was a 54 year old grocer who suffered from diabetes and incurable heart disease. He survived the operation but unfortunately died 18 days after the operation of pneumonia induced by the immunosuppressive drugs he was taking.

The original theatre where this transplant was performed has been turned into a museum in honour of these pioneers of medicine, and to the first donor and recipient. Chris Barnard had achieved a milestone in life-extension surgery and continued to perform heart transplant surgeries. He performed an operation on Philip Blaiberg in January 1968 (who survived for 19 months after the operation). He performed the heart transplant operation on Dorothy Fisher in 1969. She became the first black recipient and lived for 12 years 6 months after the transplant operation. Another transplant patient, Dirk van Zyl, received a new heart in 1971 and was the longest-lived recipient, surviving over 23 years. Chris Barnard performed 10 orthotopic transplants between 1967 and 1973. He devised the heterotopic heart transplant operation method. 49 of these operations were performed consecutively in Cape Town between 1975 and 1984. Chris Barnard retired as Head of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town in 1983 after developing rheumatoid arthritis in his hands, which prevented him from operating.

Chris Barnard is known world-wide for being the person who performed the first successful heart transplant operation. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work. He was married and divorced 3 times in his life. He died in September 2001 while on holiday in Cyprus. His death had been caused by a severe asthma attack (according to the autopsy). He will be remembered as one of the most famous South Africans in history and a pioneer in the medical field in general.

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