Definition of Bernard, Christiaan

Bernard, Christiaan: South African surgeon (1922-2001) who pioneered cardiac transplantation.

Dr. Bernard did the world's first heart transplant on December 3, 1967. The heart donor was Denise Darvall, a 25-year old woman, struck by an automobile while crossing a street in Cape Town. She was rushed to Groote Schuur Hospital, where her brain was found to be clinically dead. Her heart was found to be in good condition and she had the same blood type as the recipient, Louis Washkansky, a grocer. The surgery went well.

However, Mr. Washkansky was left very vulnerable to infection by the radiation and large doses of immune-suppressing drugs (azathioprine and hydrocortisone) then believed necessary to overcome rejection of the transplant. Mr. Washkansky developed pneumonia and died 18 days after surgery.

Dr. Bernard also performed the second human heart transplant. On Jan. 2, 1968, he transplanted the heart of a young man into a retired dentist, Philip Blaiberg.

The young man from whom the heart came was of "mixed race" while Dr. Blaiberg was white. That Dr. Bernard had ignored racial barriers caused a sensation in apartheid South Africa.

The amount of antirejection drugs was reduced and Dr. Blaiberg survived for 19 months and 15 days. He died of chronic organ rejection.

Heart transplant surgery has now become a standard procedure. It had been done about 100,000 times as of 2001 and was carried out on about 2,100 patients in 160 hospitals in the U.S. in 2001, with a one-year success rate of 85-90% and a five-year success rate of 75%.


Last Editorial Review: 6/14/2012

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