3 Dec 2017: 50 years of first human heart transplant…

Superb piece by Marina Joubert of Stellenbosch University. It is amazing how much is written about economic event anniversaries and very little about things which just changed humanity.

Marina takes us through the first human heart transplant 50 years ago by Dr Chris Barnard:

South Africa’s Chris Barnard stands out in medical history as the heart surgeon who became a global household name after transplanting the first human heart on 3 December 1967.

The historic surgery captured the world’s imagination and was hailed by 20th-century historians as socially and scientifically of equal significancecompared to the moon-landing in 1969.

I examined aspects of this landmark surgery in two papers. The one looks at how Barnard fits into the mould of celebrity scientists across the world. The other zooms in on Barnard himself and how the media shaped perceptions of his landmark surgery.

The dramatic events that unfolded 50 years ago in Cape Town on December 2 and 3, 1967 had all the makings of media gold. It was a daring world-first in medicine, performed by a largely unknown surgeon in a hospital far away from leading medical centres around the world where other surgeons were working towards the same goal. Embedded in the drama were real people set to become instantly famous and whose lives would change forever.

Underlying it all, were moral apprehensions about whether doctors were playing God which resulted in fierce criticism of Barnard. The criticism was tempered by public fascination with the idea that one person’s heart could beat in someone else’s chest, as well as by Barnard’s explanations that the heart was nothing more than a pump.

On top of all this, Barnard’s charisma and the increasing competition between news companies fuelled the unprecedented media interest. No other medical milestone has had such a defining effect on the relationship between medicine, media and society.

The historic human heart transplant demonstrates the power of mass media to transform a scientist into a global icon. It highlights how public visibility offers some scientists a path to influence and power, but also illustrates that scientific celebrity comes with considerable reputational and personal risk.

It reminds us that science, morals and politics have always been, and will always be, inextricably interlinked.

A highly welcome read…


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