Half a century ago, in December 1967, Christiaan Barnard became the first person to perform a successful heart transplant. It was a momentous achievement, and within days he had become the best-known surgeon in the world. But much of this story has been largely forgotten: he was an outsider in the world of transplantation, a peripheral figure who few expected to make such a dramatic breakthrough. Far from being a triumph, the first era of heart transplantation was an abject failure – within a few years so many patients had died that the operation was virtually abandoned. And Barnard’s pioneering surgery was only made possible by the painstaking research of dozens of little-known investigators whose work began over a half a century earlier.
A history of heart surgery in eleven operations, The Matter of the Heart tells the story of cardiac surgery and the characters who made it possible, from the very first operation in 1896 to the present day. It shows how a pioneering generation of doctors in the early 20th century overcame a longstanding belief that the heart was out of bounds to the scalpel, and charts the amazing progress that followed. The book explains how the heart works, what can go wrong and how it can be fixed – and details the increasingly sophisticated procedures surgeons invented in order to do so. Those surgeons and their patients are prominent characters in this drama, but it’s also a tale of technology, human ingenuity and changing public attitudes to ethical questions, as well as to the organ itself.
In November 2015 The Matter of the Heart won an RSL Jerwood Award for non-fiction.