Heart Surgery and Transplants

May 24, 1968

Report Outline
Surgical Sensation: Heart Transplants
Earlier Advances in Heart Surgery
New Approaches to Coronary Disease
Special Focus

Surgical Sensation: Heart Transplants

Progress in combating dread disease tends to move ahead slowly by way of many small bits and pieces of knowledge drawn from scientific research and the clinical experience of practicing physicians. Once in a while this slow-paced advance is marked by an achievement so extraordinary that it tends to overshadow the main route by which the healing arts go forward. A dramatic episode of this kind occurred on Dec. 3, 1967, when Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard of Cape Town, South Africa, performed the first human heart transplantation in medical history—a feat since repeated more than a dozen times by surgical teams on three continents.

Not since the announcement of the discovery of the Salk vaccine for poliomyelitis 14 years ago had an item of medical news produced so electrifying an effect on the medical profession and the general public alike. The basic facts could be easily grasped by the non-scientific public: a surgeon had cut away the diseased heart of a dying man and replaced it with a healthy heart taken from a newly dead person; the transplanted heart had then taken up a normal heart's work in the recipient's body. This was a medical achievement of seemingly incomparable magnitude. Almost instantly Dr. Barnard became a world-wide celebrity, and his subsequent travels to Europe and to the United States took on almost the aspect of triumphal tours.

Notes of caution and concern nevertheless could be heard above the chorus of accolades. The feat was great and much could be learned from it. But the fact that heart transplantation was feasible was not news to medical researchers who had performed hundreds of such operations on dogs over the past half-dozen years. Nor did the operation initiate a new day in medical management of heart conditions. For the 5½ million or more Americans who suffer from coronary artery disease—chief killer among heart ailments—the triumph in the operating room of the Grote Schuur Hospital at Cape Town and the subsequent heart transplantations have offered little hope of relief from pain, disability, or fear of early death. For them the main hope still lay in the steady accumulation of medical knowledge and especially of insight into the workings of human biology.

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May 24, 1968  Heart Surgery and Transplants
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