The surgeon who dared: 50 years ago this week Dr Christiaan Barnard defied doubters to perform the first ever heart transplant and lead a medical revolution as a fellow medic reveals his rags to riches tale

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Some 50 years ago this week Dr Christiaan Barnard defied doubters to perform the first ever heart transplant. 

The procedure prompted a medical revolution that meant heart conditions were no longer a death sentence, Dr Barnard subsequently became a pioneer in heart surgery and a worldwide celebrity.

His face appeared on the covers of Life, Newsweek, and Time magazines. 

The 50th anniversary of this breakthrough operation, performed on December 3 1967 coincides with the release of a new book ‘Christiaan Barnard: The Surgeon Who Dared’, which is written by the surgeon’s former colleague David Cooper.

Images in the book show the ground-breaking surgeon hard at work in the operating theatre performing open-heart surgery, while another captures the first ever recipient of a heart transplant, Louis Washkansky, shortly after he woke up from the procedure.

Although the surgery was deemed a success Mr Washkansky, 54, died nine days later from pneumonia, which is thought to have been caused by the immune system-suppressing drugs he was given for the operation.

Dr Barnard’s second attempt at the procedure in 1968 was more successful, with patient Philip Blaiberg surviving 19 months. 

The surgeon, who started his life as a ‘rough-at-the-edges poor boy’ became a worldwide celebrity, mobbed by fans and rubbing shoulders with Princess Diana, boxer Mohammed Ali and even Pope Paul VI.  

Mr Cooper, who worked with Dr Barnard during his time in surgery, wrote: ‘It is unlikely that any physician or surgeon either before or after him has been so widely recognised by the average man in the street.

‘This was in part because heart transplantation had a dramatic and mystical aura about it, but was equally a response to Barnard’s youthful good looks and charismatic personality, which naturally drew people’s attention to him.’ 

28f07313bf48196c529edc67b6d45ddb The surgeon who dared: 50 years ago this week Dr Christiaan Barnard defied doubters to perform the first ever heart transplant and lead a medical revolution as a fellow medic reveals his rags to riches tale

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