The ‘first’ heart transplant

the art of medicine james hardyDo you know who performed the world’s first heart transplant ? The surgeon usually credited with the feat is the South African Christiaan Barnard, who on December 3rd 1967 gave Louis Washkansky, a 54-year-old grocer, a new heart. The fiftieth anniversary of that celebrated operation falls later this year – but Barnard was not, in fact, the first person to transplant a donor heart into a human patient.

That distinction belongs to James Hardy, a surgeon at the University of Mississippi, who on January 23rd 1964 operated on a desperately sick patient called Boyd Rush. Hardy had been researching the possibilities of transplantation for almost a decade, and the previous year had performed the first lung transplant anywhere in the world. He concluded that there was nothing that could be done for Rush except give him a new heart – and, in the absence of a human donor, he chose to use an organ taken from a chimpanzee.

chimpanzee heart
Chimpanzee heart after completion of anastomosis, in recipient’s chest.

The operation was a failure, and had far-reaching consequences, both for Hardy and for the future of transplantation.  I’ve written an essay about this fascinating episode in the history of cardiac surgery for this week’s issue of The Lancet – you can read it here.  Access is free, but you may need to register first.

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