The Surgeon With a Filmstar Face Who Became an Overnight Celebrity

He made a big difference in the world. From the tip of Africa, and also had an impact on my life.

Photo of Dr. Chris Barnard

Can someone really make a difference in this world? I don’t mean small stuff, because I believe all of us can. I mean the really big stuff. Helping a person live longer, actually grabbing them from the clutches of death.

Breaking ground so that other people can follow and also save lives. This required courage and determination. Dr. Cristiaan Barnard of South Africa was the first person to do a human heart transplant.

A 1st for South Africa

On 3 December 1967 Professor Christiaan (Chris) Barnard did the first human-to-human heart transplant in the world. This historical event took place at The Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town South Africa.

On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday, I was world-renowned. — Dr Cris Barnard

This surgeon was described as a film star because of his looks, but also due to the company he was seen with regularly. He was friends with Princess Diana, had an affair with film star Gina Lollobrigida and had an audience with Pope Paul VI. Barnard is mobbed for an autograph.

Not many people know that he developed a new procedure to cure intestinal atresia and analyzed 259 cases of tubercular meningitis for which he received his doctorate in medicine (MD). This was done before he became famous for the heart transplant.


Between 1955 and 1958 he spent two years at the University of Minnesota. Here he was assigned to continue, in his main field of the time, of intestines. He wanted to move on to another field but accepted the opportunity to get more experience.

Here Dr. Barnard met Norman Shumway who would also later be a pioneer in the field of heart transplants. The year before Barnard arrived Gil Campbell demonstrated that he could use a dog’s lung to oxygenate blood during open-heart surgery. Gil Campbell worked with Walt Lillehei who also was an open-heart surgery pioneer.

Back to South Africa

In his book, One Life Dr. Barnard explained that the people at the University of Minnesota wanted to give him a gift for his good service there. He asked for a pump-oxygenator. This machine was used in conjunction with a heart-lung machine during open-heart surgery. He received this pump through a grant from the US Institutes of Health (NIH).

It was the first one in South Africa.

This pump machine enabled him to focus more on open-heart surgery. He was the first surgeon to correct Ebstein’s anomaly. According to PubMed he also had one of the best if not the best results in the world from the correction of Tetralogy of Fallot.

The heart transplant wasn’t such a big thing surgically. The point is I was prepared to take the risk. My philosophy is that the biggest risk in life is not to take the risk. — Dr Christiaan Barnard

One of the doctors that operated on my Tetralogy of Fallot received training from Dr. Christaan Barnard. My surgery was done in 1976 in Bloemfontein South Africa.

It was also during the 1960s that Barnard and his team did the first human to human heart transplant. In 1968 he was proposed for the Nobel Prize for medicine but did not win it. In 1974 he also performed the first double heart transplantation again at Groote Schuur.

Any man who says he doesn’t like applause and recognition is either a fool or a liar. You learn from mistakes, but success gives you the courage to go on and do even more. — Dr Cristiaan Barnard

Thank you, Dr. Barnard

He was also known for marrying and divorcing three times, and his private life was less than perfect. But I agree with President Theodore Roosevelt.

On critics: “It is not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”- President Theodore Roosevelt

Dr. Barnard was in the arena. He was sometimes called hungry for success, ambitious, intense assertive but also stubborn, ruthless, unreasonable, volatile, and with a killer instinct. He was willing to dare.

He received eleven honorary doctorates, 36 international wards from eleven countries as well as 76 gold, silver, and bronze medals. About 60 memorials have been erected for him and he received the freedom to 26 cities.

His willingness to dare combined with all his attributes mentioned above made a direct impact on my life. Some of the breakthroughs he made combined with the techniques and machines he used were of utmost importance during my operation.

I want to say thank you to Dr. Barnard although I know that he died in 2001. Thank you for your courage confidence and willingness to be in the arena.

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