University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'A year of resurrection, a year of grotesque horror': heart transplants and the media in 1968

'A year of resurrection, a year of grotesque horror': heart transplants and the media in 1968

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In December 1967 a relatively unknown surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, transplanted the heart of a young, female road-accident victim into a 54-year-old Cape Town grocer, Louis Washkansky. The operation received media attention that was unprecedented for a medical undertaking, transforming Barnard and Washkansky into international celebrities overnight. Although Washkansky lived for only 18 days with his new heart, in 1968 over 100 transplants were performed worldwide. Most of the recipients died within days or weeks of their revolutionary surgery and from the end of 1969 the procedure was all but abandoned for a decade. In the already turbulent period of the late 1960s, human heart transplantation proved to be an ethical minefield that challenged existing notions of life and death. I argue that the public nature of this controversial surgical feat fundamentally changed medical-media relations and directly affected the outcome of the heart-transplant enterprise. This talk aims to shed new light on arguably the most famous operation of the twentieth century, and its repercussions for media and medical history.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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