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 ostracised by their fellow Afrikaners.

Barnard’s mother, Maria, was an austere, God-fearing woman who drove her sons to “always be first”, threatening to whip them if they underperformed at school. Barnard described his mother as “a strongly determined woman – insisting everything be perfect, that we boys be first in school and that we never admit defeat. I was afraid of my mother, of displeasing her and making her angry.”

Maria’s coldness was due in part to the loss of her second-born son, Abraham, who died of congenital heart disease at the age of 18 months. Abraham’s death haunted the family but may also have been the reason why Barnard chose a medical career: in his autobiography One Life a young Barnard confides to his brothers that he might want to become a doctor to help “others with poor hearts”.


Read more about the Heart transplant pioneer’s family life here.