Today In History: First Successful Heart Transplant

Today In History |

December 3, 1967

Today in 1967, a South African grocer named Louis Washkansky, then fifty-three years old, became history's first recipient of a human heart transplant. The operation was conducted at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.


Interestingly, Washkansky received a heart from a female donor. Her name was Denise Darvall. Only twenty-five years old at the time she was killed in a car accident, her heart would replace Washkansky's, which was terminally diseased. The procedure was conducted by Christiaan Barnard. It was based on speculative protocols developed in America in the fifties, which had never been successfully implemented in a human subject.

Barnard was not the first surgeon to perform a heart transplant. He was the first to perform a heart transplant in a human being. An American surgeon named Norman Shumway had previously transplanted a heart into a dog in 1958.

Daily Telegraph

The operation was a success, though a short-lived one. Worried that his body's immune system would attack the implanted organ, Washkansky's doctors gave him a high dose of immunosuppressant drugs. Unfortunately, this would lead to his death of double pneumonia a mere eighteen days after the heart transplant. Though it was a tragedy for Washkansky and the medical team that cared for him, it was nevertheless a major step forward for medical science. The transplanted heart worked perfectly normally until Washkansky died.

Different drugs were developed that made organ transplant safer. The operation also became more common. Dr. Barnard himself continued to pioneer the surgery, with much improved results. His patients typically lived up to five additional years after their operations.

Heart transplants are still performed, though the donor pool is extremely small.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.