Ask a 60-year-old what they are the television images of childhood remained indelible in his memory. I did it with about thirty friends and most of them gave me the same answer. I expected it from an event: Neil Armstrong’s First Step on the Moon. Of the other no: the first heart transplant performed on December 3, 1967 by South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard. It was an epochal event that populated the front pages of newspapers around the world and occupied the main space of the news, splitting public opinion in two. Barnard was no funny guy. Colleagues considered him an excellent surgeon but a braggart obsessed with the need to feel the best.
The struggle between the blocs
The international context exacerbated the competition: the communist and western blocs tried every day to prove that they were scientifically ahead of the adversary. In Moscow, a scientist had transplanted the head of a dog and it was feared that soon they would pass to man. Upon hearing the news, Barnard replied the feat. They said he was crazy, also because, if a human transplant had to be done sooner or later, it was expected to take place in one of the US clinics, probably from professor Norman Shumway, which at Stanford University had been practicing on dogs for years. But Shumway was held back by ethical and legal issues. The heart had to be explanted while it was still beating, therefore by a technically alive person.
The intervention that opened a new path to medicine
There was also another political element that should not be underestimated: South Africa was in the crosshairs of the international community for its apartheid policy. Barnard, a South African with few moral scruples, was the right person for a gamble. The surgery took place on Louis Washkansky the night a woman in an irreversible coma was hospitalized. After 5 hours in the operating room, Barnard telephoned the hospital director: surgery was successful. Washkansky died 18 days later of pneumonia but The braggart Barnard had opened a new path to science. And given South Africa a little breath.
March 6, 2021 (change March 6, 2021 | 19:41)