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First heart transplant performed 35 years ago

Published on: Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Thirty-five years ago today, surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant on a human being at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.

Barnard, who studied medicine at the University of Cape Town and pursued further heart training in the U.S., employed transplantation techniques initially developed by American researchers in the 1950s. American surgeon Norman Shumway achieved the first successful heart transplant, in a dog, at Stanford University in California in 1958.

On December 3, 1967, Barnard transplanted a heart from a 25-year-old woman fatally injured in a car accident into Lewis Washkansky, a 53-year-old South African grocer dying from chronic heart disease.

Lung infection and pneumonia claimed Washkansky's life 18 days later. The patient's new heart, however, continued to function normally until his death.

During the next 25 years, improved drugs such as cyclosporine dramatically reduced organ rejection by suppressing the human immune system, and increased survival rates for transplants.

Today, more than 30,000 heart transplants have been performed in the United States and more than 50,000 have been done worldwide. While heart transplantation has become very successful, finding appropriate donors is extremely difficult. More than 80,000 people in the United States currently await transplants; nearly 4,000 of those require a heart transplant.