The first donor

Denise Ann Darvall was the heart donor of the first successful heart transplant. The transplant was performed by Prof Chris Barnard and his well-equipped team of 30 medical staff.  Denise was only 25 years old when her heart was donated to save the life of Louis Washkansky. Her kidneys were donated to then 10-year-old Jonathan van Wyk. Her heart was removed by the cardiologist Dr. Marius Barnard, the brother of the lead surgeon Prof Chris Barnard. Denise Darvall’s heart gave life to a new medical era, paving the way for many medical wonders.

The Darvall family of five lived in a two-bedroom apartment which was situated near the Jan van Riebeeck High school In Tamboerskloof. Denise had a great passion for classical music, as well as Barbara Cartland novels. She didn’t really care for pop music of the time, such as The Beatles and Elvis. She would much rather have listened to Joan Sutherland. She was also a very talented seamstress, designing and sowing beautiful gowns.  At the young age of 25, Denise had a very promising career in front of her. She had been promoted at the bank where she worked, giving her a hefty salary increase. She used this money to purchase a brand-new Ford Anglia. This quickly became the pride of the Darvall family.

The day of the Accident

It was in the Anglia that the Darvall family set off for afternoon tea on the 2nd of December 1967, hosted at the home of family friends situated in Milnerton. It was at 14:45 that the family left the confinements of their apartment in the City Bowl. Denise was behind the wheel, humming away to the theme song of the movie Doctor Zhivago, as she had just spent the day teaching her brother the tune on the piano. The two ladies, Denise and her mother Myrtle, decided that it will only be in good manners to take a cake for the tea. They stopped at Joseph Coppenberg’s Bakery in Observatory for one of their famous caramel cakes. Denise parked the car on the opposite side of the bakery, which meant that they had to cross the busy Main Street.


On their way back, a great truck obstructed their view, which meant that they couldn’t see the second lane of oncoming traffic. Denise Darvall and mother Myrtle never saw the car of Frederick Prins speeding down Main street. It was at around 15:30 that they were attempting to cross the street when Frederick’s car struck the two ladies.

The Injuries

Denise was flung across the road, causing her head to hit the wheel cap of the family’s car, the Anglia. She sustained a skull fracture and various other severe head injuries. She was taken to Groote Schuur hospital, where it was established that Denise could not breathe on her own.

A father’s difficult decision

Denise was declared brain dead by 9 pm, which was the first indication of her becoming a viable donor- as a beating heart was not an indication of life.  The South African law only specified that a donor had to be declared brain dead by two doctors, thus making Denise a viable candidate for the first heart transplant that was to be performed on Louis Whaskansky. Approached by Prof Chris Barnard, Dense’s father, Edward Darvall had to make a very difficult decision. Edward could still see his daughter’s heart beating on the medical machines, which made the decision much more difficult.

The first heart transplant donor

With authorization from her father, Denise’s heart and kidney were harvested and donated. Edward later stated that ‘The tragic death of his daughter was not meaningless, but benefited humanity.’

Denise’s heart was used for the first heart transplant that was successful in the world. Her death will never be in vain, and she will always be remembered as the woman who ultimately sacrificed her life to save countless others.