Christiaan Barnard: The Man Behind the Historical First Heart Transplant

A brief history of the legendary man, the first heart transplant doctor, Dr. Christiaan Barnard (1922 -2001).


Small Beginnings

Christiaan Barnard was born on the 8th of November 1922 in the small Karoo town of Beaufort West (some 500 kilometers from Cape Town).

The third of four surviving brothers, Barnard’s childhood was, in many ways, as harsh as the semi-dessert which surrounded him. The Barnard family led a Spartan lifestyle. His father, Adam, was a much-loved missionary for the coloured community during a time of heightened racial segregation. As a result, the family was largely ostracized by their fellow Afrikaners.

The Young Doctor

In spite of intense financial challenges, Adam and Maria Barnard ensured that their sons were well educated. He studied at the University of Cape Town Medical School where he graduated as a doctor with a MBChB degree in 1946.

The Surgeon

The young Barnard family with the new addition, baby Deidre and Louwtjie pregnant with their second child, left Ceres for Cape Town. Here, Barnard studied further and was awarded the MD degree for his dissertation on the treatment of patients with tuberculosis meningitis at the City Hospital for Infectious Diseases. Barnard’s ultimate end goal was achieved when he was triumphaned as the first surgeon to succesfully perform a heart transplant. Read more on how he triumphed as the first heart transplant surgeon here.

The Barnard’s Family Life

Barnard’s choice of career, ambition and drive undoubtedly put strain in his first marriage to Louwtjie, in the early days before the historic heart transplant. The celebrity status he gained after the event pushed their relationship over the edge and the couple ultimately divorced. Their children, Deidre and André, continued to live with Louwtjie.


His Final Moments

Prof Christiaan Barnard once said that getting old is one of life’s greatest tragedies.

Particularly hard, indeed, for a man “who lived a life worth living”.