First Human Heart Transplant

Lewis Washkansky, the first human heart transplant recipient.

Lewis Washkansky, the first human heart transplant recipient.

On December 3, 1967, the first successful human-to-human heart transplant was performed.

South African surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, performed the third successful kidney transplant in the world, and had been experimenting with heart transplants in animals for several years. He performed over 50 dog heart transplants. Many medical breakthroughs in heart transplantation had been made and most surgical teams were merely waiting for a suitable patient to perform the operation on and a donor. 53-year-old South African grocer Lewis Washkansky, who suffered from diabetes and incurable chronic heart disease, agreed to have the procedure. Barnard found a donor in Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old woman who was brain dead after being involved in a fatal car crash days before. Her father agreed to donate her heart for the operation.

Barnard performed the operation in 9 hours with a thirty-person team including his brother, Marius Barnard. The transplant was a success and Washkansky’s body did not reject the new organ due to the immunosuppressive drugs administered on him. Those same drugs, however, weakened Washkansky’s immune system and he contracted double pneumonia and died 18 days after he received his new heart. Though Barnard’s patient died a little over two weeks after the surgery, the heart functioned properly until the time of the patient’s death and Barnard became an overnight celebrity for the success of his operation. Barnard continued to perform heart transplants for many years after completing his first, and his patients’ survival rate continued to grow, with one of his patients surviving for 23 years after his transplant was performed.

The majority of surgeons were still weary on performing the procedure because of the high risk of organ rejection. Cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive drug that is highly effective, was developed in the 1980s and organ transplant surgeries became more common.

Although Barnard was internationally recognized through most of his life for this successful operation, his name lost some credit after he promoted the supposed anti-aging skin cream, Glycel. The product proved to do nothing at all to slow the aging process and its approval was withdrawn by the FDA. Although the credibility of Barnard declined before his death in 2001, this day is still considered a remarkable turning point in medical history.

Sources:, Wired, Wikipedia


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