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Sunday, 2 September, 2001, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Christiaan Barnard: Single-minded surgeon
Doctor Christiaan Barnard
BBC News Online profiles Christiaan Barnard, who has died aged 78.

"On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday I was world renowned."

Thus Dr Christian Barnard recalled a weekend in 1967, when he became the first person to perform a heart transplant on a human being.

Barnard's unique approach to the human heart changed this area of medical procedures forever, and for the pioneering doctor it meant lifelong celebrity and worldwide renown.

Doctor Barnard with some of his medical team
Barnard led his team in pioneering cardiac techniques
But he later expressed surprise at the publicity his own techniques had generated. Of the operation that caused such a furore, he explained: "I did not even inform the hospital superintendent what we were doing."

The son of a poor Afrikaner preacher from Beaufort West, a town on South Africa's semi-arid Great Karroo plateau, Barnard walked five miles each day to study at Cape Town University, before becoming a family physician on the Western Cape.

In the late 1950s he altered his medical field and went to the United States to study the latest operative techniques in cardiac treatment.

By 1967, Barnard was a well respected cardiothoracic surgeon at the Groote Schuur Hospital back in Cape Town, and had already conducted many heart experiments on animals.

He explained: "For me the heart has always been an organ without any mystique attached to it ... merely a primitive pump."

Louis Washkansky
Making history: Louis Washkansky
Then his patient Louis Washkansky, chose to undergo pioneering surgery, even though the odds against success were slim.

On December 3, Barnard led a 30-man medical team in transferring the heart of a 25-year-old motor victim into Washkansky's body, and medical history was made.

This very sick man died from a lung infection 18 days later, and the prospects for heart transplant patients did not improve for a few years.

However, Barnard had spearheaded a significant medical advance and he was thrust into the international limelight.

He never fitted the archetypal image of an eminent surgeon. Young and handsome, he spent as much time in nightclubs as in operating theatres.

He was feted wherever he went, received by the Pope in Rome and entertained by President Johnson in America. Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida were just two of the beautiful women with whom Barnard kept company, but all three of his marriages failed.

Barnard with Gina Lollobrigida
Barnard with Gina Lollobrigida
After his breakthrough, he continued to work with a professional passion that excited the public and frightened his colleagues. He was the pioneer of further cardiac techniques.

These included double transplants, joining a healthy heart to the patient's to create a "double pump", designing artificial heart valves and using monkeys' hearts to keep alive desperately ill people.

Barnard never stopped working, writing scientific books and novels, and in later life spending much of his time at the Baptist Medical Centre in Oklahoma, where he tried to find a way of slowing the ageing process. It seemed he was searching for a miracle to match his first.

Barnard in his study
Barnard studied ceaselessly all his life
He was a figure that always courted controversy, be it clashing with the South African authorities over issues of apartheid, or admitting he had practised passive euthanasia on terminally ill patients, including his own mother.

He was quick to claim that the life of the Princess of Wales could have been saved if she had been treated differently by the emergency services.

His ego was certainly healthier than the many patients he handled. But the energy and conviction that made Christiaan Barnard appear, at times, rather too sure of himself were the same qualities that ensured a dramatic breakthrough in a prohibitively complicated field of medicine.

The man who believed that "the individual is the brain, not the heart" nevertheless caught the imagination of the world with his passion for the human pump.

See also:

02 Sep 01 | Health
Pioneering heart surgeon dies
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