1967: First Heart Transplant Patient Goes Under the Knife

Louis Washkansky was a fun-loving, hard-drinking, athletic man who got a new heart and ended up dying of pneumonia.

On December 3, 1967, Louis Washkansky became the first human being ever to undergo a heart transplant, in an operation performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, in Cape Town, South Africa. Washkansky survived for 18 days with the new heart.

Louis Washkansky was born in 1914 in Kovno (today Kaunas), Lithuania. When he was 9, his mother took him and his three siblings to Cape Town, to join their father, who had come ahead of the family to pave the way in their new home. The elder Washkansky opened a grocery in the city’s Gardens neighborhood.

According to a detailed article about Washkansky’s historic transplant by Dr. Irving Lissoos, in the journal Jewish Affairs, the recipient was a fun-loving, hard-drinking, athletic man, a member of the Maccabi Wrestling Club and Gym. He also “smoked like a chimney.”

In 1940, Washkansky enlisted in the South African Engineering Corps, and saw action in Africa and in Italy. On one occasion, writes Lissoos, Washkansky disappeared from his unit in Italy, returning after a few days with a live ox, which was then slaughtered to provide fresh meat for the soldiers.

In 1947, Washkansky, who returned to Cape Town after the war and opened his own grocery, married Anne Sklar, also a child immigrant to South Africa from Lithuania. (The two were introduced by Anne’s brother, Solly Sklar, a onetime South African heavyweight wrestling champion, who had served in the army with Louis.)

Washkansky had the first of three heart attacks in December 1960. He also was a diabetic. In January 1967, his family doctor referred him to Dr. Mervyn Gotsman, a physician at the cardiac clinic at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur hospital. (Gotsman later became the head of the cardiology department at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, and the personal physician of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.)

By the late autumn of 1967, Washkansky’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he was near death. By then, however, Groote Schuur was ready to attempt a heart transplant. Cardiothoracic surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who had studied transplant surgery in the United States and had already performed heart replacements on some 200 dogs, determined that Washkansky was a good candidate to be the first human to undergo the procedure. When the idea was proposed to Washkansky, he accepted immediately. 

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On Saturday, December 2, 1967, Denise Darvall, 25, and her mother, Myrtle, were hit by a car operated by a drunk driver as they crossed Main Road in Observatory, Cape Town. Myrtle died immediately, but Denise was brought to the hospital seriously injured. When it became clear that her condition was fatal, Darvall’s father gave permission for transplantation of her organs. At the time, however, as standards for determining “brain death” were not yet agreed upon, a body's organs could be harvested only after “whole-body death” was declared.

In Darvall’s case, it was only when Barnard injected potassium into her heart that it stopped beating, at which point it could be removed. (It was Christiaan Barnard’s brother Marius, also a surgeon, who urged him to induce heart stoppage, and who revealed this only in 2006.) The five-hour operation, carried out by a team of 30 led by Barnard, began at 1 A.M. on December 3, and reached its emotional peak when Barnard applied an electrical current to the transplanted heart and it began to beat within Washkansky’s body.

Washkansky reacted well initially, and he was in good spirits. For fear that the tissue of the new heart would be rejected by his body, his doctors decided to bombard him with medication that would suppress his immune system. Unfortunately, the drugs also prevented the patient’s body from fighting the pneumonia he had contracted. Washkansky died on December 12.

Three days after Washkansky’s surgery, Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz carried out a second heart transplant, on a baby in the U.S. (the infant survived only for a number of hours). And on January 2, 1968, Christiaan Barnard performed a third procedure, on Philip Blaiberg, a dentist, who was also Jewish. Blaiberg lived for more than 19 months with his new heart. Making his case even more dramatic was the fact that he received his heart from the body of a young “colored,” that is, mixed-race, man.

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