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A Savage History

A new book highlights disturbing details about the early days of organ transplants.

Following the news in 1967 that Cape Town’s Christiaan Barnard had implanted a human heart inside 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, cardiac surgeons worldwide raced to be the next to perform such an operation—despite the fact that Mr. Washkansky died 18 days after undergoing his. By the end of 1969, 166 heart transplants had been carried out in 22 countries. Like Mr. Washkansky, all the early recipients of transplanted hearts died soon after surgery as their immune systems rebelled.

The excitement that attended the initial transplant surgeries—beginning with the first kidney transplant in 1954 and climaxing with the heart transplants of the ’60s—is hard to imagine today, when tens of thousands of transplant operations are conducted in the United States every year and just short of 2,500 are cardiac transplants. Nicholas L. Tilney, director of the Surgical Research Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, refreshes our memories in his book Transplant: From Myth to Reality, but the history he presents may anger many readers because it raises this question: Did the ends of transplant surgery justify the means employed by many of its pioneers?

From the beginning, excessive hype surrounded the procedure. For Britain’s first heart transplantation, in 1968, the donor was conveyed to the National Heart Hospital in an ambulance preceded by a cavalcade of paparazzi—they had been tipped off by one of the doctors. Then, after the operation, “the surgeons, in full operating regalia, appeared on the steps of one of the London teaching hospitals to the shouts of cheering crowds, bands playing ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’ and ‘God Save the Queen,’ and the waving of flags.” Public disenchantment followed some of the more disturbing transplant stories: the political manipulations of the two men responsible for the first artificial heart implanted in a human in 1969; and the case of brutal abuse in which a black “donor” had his heart removed, apparently without his permission, for a transplant in South Africa in 1968.

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TRANSPLANT
By Nicholas L. Tilney
Yale University Press
320 pages, $30
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