Monday Morning Brief | Stamp honors first heart transplant

Apr 28, 2021, 4 AM

Scott catalog new-issues editor Marty Frankevicz reports on a stamp issued by South Africa on Dec. 1 to commemorate a scientific achievement that started with a tragedy.

Full Video Transcript:

Good morning and welcome to the Monday Morning Brief for December 4, 2017.

For a span of one month in the 1960s, the biggest scientific achievements weren’t made in outer space. And on December 1, South Africa issued a stamp to mark this advance that started with a tragedy.

On December 2, 1967, a drunk driver plowed into a mother and daughter on a street in Cape Town. The mother was killed immediately, but the daughter, Denise Darvall, was brought to Groote Schuur hospital where she would soon be declared brain dead.

In the same hospital was Louis Washkansky, a 54-year old man whose heart was failing fast. And the next day, December 3, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Christaan Barnard, removed Washkansky’s heart and replaced it with Darvall’s, thus performing the first human-to-human heart transplant. Washkansky awoke after the operation to find a new heart beating in his chest without any assistance.

This success immediately made the young, photogenic Dr. Barnard the most famous person in the world.

Three days later, on December 6, in Brooklyn, Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz performed the second heart transplant to try to save the life of a 19-day-old infant, but that child died six hours after the operation. And, alas, on December 21, Washkansky died of pneumonia. The two operations proved that heart transplants could be done, but much was needed to be done to keep the patients alive.

To finish this furious month in medical pioneering, Barnard’s team performed the third heart transplant in Cape Town on January 2, 1968. He shocked Apartheid South Africa by implanting the heart of a dead black man, Clive Haupt, in the chest of Dr. Philip Blaiberg, a white dentist on death’s doorstep.

From a medical standpoint, Barnard didn’t give a hoot about Apartheid’s restrictions. To his thinking, skin color made no difference when it came to transplantation. After Darvall’s death, his team took her kidneys and transplanted them in a young black boy, and even before Darvall’s death, Barnard had considered using the heart of a dying black man for Washkansky’s operation, until testing indicated that it was not suitable.

And whatever was learned by Barnard’s first heart transplant paid dividends for Blaiberg. The dentist returned home and survived another 19½ months with his new heart before dying of organ rejection.

For Linn’s Stamp News and the Scott Catalogs, I’m Marty Frankevicz. Enjoy your week in stamps.