Christiaan Neethling Barnard

Doctor Chris Barnard received his MD degree, in 1953, from the University of Cape Town for a thesis called, “The treatment of tuberulous Meningitis”. From there he traveled over to the United States where he trained in cardio thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in Minnesota. There he received his Master of Science in Surgery, for a thesis called, “The aortic valve – problems in the fabrication and testing of a prosthetic valve”, five years after he had left his family and his country. That same year he was awarded Doctor of Philosophy for his thesis called, “The aetiology of congenital intestinal atresia”.

Doctor Chris Barnard did not pioneer the surgical technique he used at the Groote Schuur Hospital in 1967; rather he worked on it and perfected it in the laboratory. Chris Barnard’s younger brother Marius, was the first one to break the news to the doctors, attending the cardiac pathology meeting, that is brother and his team of surgeons were going to transplant the first human heart. Barnard did not realize the impact that this procedure would have when he first began operating at 3pm that Saturday.

Once Barnard’s team had completed the operation on Louis Washkansky, they quietly went their way not realizing just what lay before them. The early the next morning Barnard contacted the medical superintendent to inform him of the operation after much thought and deliberation. Barnard is acknowledged for his courage to take what he had learned in the laboratories and actually apply it to one of his patients, something not many others would have done. It was that, which made him a leader in the field of congenital heart surgery.

Barnard’s second pioneering effort came about after a man had to have his heart transplanted but died when the replacement failed. His distraught son couldn’t understand why they hadn’t just put his own heart back. The next heart operation Barnard placed the new heart into the patient, leaving the second one in place; this was named the “piggyback” transplant. Barnard’s success, apart from having one of the best heart surgeon teams, was his post-operative intensive care that he pioneered.

While holidaying in Phapos, a beautiful coastal town in Cyrus, Christaan Barnard suffered an acute asthma attack in his hotel room and died at the age of 78.