Barnard, Christiaan Neethling

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Barnard, Christiaan Neethling

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Dr Christiaan Neethling Barnard made medical history on 3 December 1967, when he and his team successfully performed the world's first human heart transplant, by implanting the heart of Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old automobile accident victim in the chest of Louis Washkansky. Eighteen days later Washkansky, a wholesale grocer, died of pneumonia. The next month Dr Barnard performed his second heart transplant on Philip Blaiberg, who survived for nearly two years. He also was the first to implant a second heart to serve as an auxiliary pump in November 1974. These pioneering surgical procedures opened new eras in the treatment of heart disease.

Chris Barnard, an Afrikaner, was born in November 1922, in Beaufort West, where his father was a Dutch Reformed Church minister. He left his Beaufort West high school in December 1940, and began his medical training with the University of Cape Town at the Groote Schuur Hospital in January 1941. He gained his M.B., Ch.B. in December of 1946, and entered private general practice in the small town of Ceres in the Cape Province.

He soon found that his interests lay not in general practice but in innovative medicine and breaking new ground. He accepted the posts of Senior Resident Medical Officer at City Hospital, Cape Town from 1951 to 1953, and then Registrar in the Department of Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital from 1953 to 1954. Whilst holding these posts Dr Barnard studied and experimented, and gained the degrees of M.Med., M.D. as a result of his research, from the University of Cape Town in 1953.

He remained at Groote Schuur Hospital until January 1956, when he was awarded the Dazian-Foundation Bursary, which permitted him to study cardio-thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota in USA. After training under Professor Owen Wangensteen, Dr Barnard was awarded the degrees of M.S., Ph.D from the University of Minnesota. These degrees were earned in a span of only two years and nine months – a university record. At the University of Minnesota Dr Barnard gained not only a PhD in surgery, but met colleagues who were on the same wave-length as himself, and with whom he could discuss professional problems after he returned to Cape Town, and some of these became his life-long friends.

Dr Barnard returned to Cape Town in 1958 to join the staff of the Groote Schuur Hospital once more, this time as a cardio-thoracic surgeon. He also became a full-time lecturer and Director of Surgical research. By 1961 he was Associate Professor of Surgery of the University of Cape Town, and by 1969 a full Professor.

Dr Barnard was elected a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1963 and of the American College of Cardiology in 1967. He was awarded a D.Sc. (Hon.Causa) by the University of Cape Town in 1967. Subsequently he was presented with numerous honorary degrees and awards from medical schools and teaching institutions throughout the world.

Dr Barnard published many academic and professional publications. He has also written several books aimed at the general public. "One Life", written in 1970, is not only his autobiography, but also a detailed account of the first heart transplant operation. This was followed a year later by a popular scientific book, "Heart Attack – You Don’t Have to Die". His third book and first novel, "The Unwanted", co-authored by Siegfried Stander, was published in South Africa in 1974, and subsequently released in USA. A fourth book, "South Africa: Sharp Dissection", a commentary on Dr Barnard’s personal political philosophy was published in 1977.

Dr Barnard retired from the University of Cape Town in 1983.


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