The Heart of Cape Town Museum. Birthplace of the first ever Human Heart Transplant.



‘It is the crowning effort of a team of men and women who bring at that moment, the training of a lifetime. Structured with the inherited technique and skill of a millennium – all are fused to one objective: to replace a dying heart with a new one, to save one life’
– Christiaan Neethling Barnard, 1922-2001

Cape Town. – I visited the Heart Museum at Groot Schuur hospital, aptly named the Heart of Cape Town and the birthplace of the first ever human heart transplant, for an engaging and fascinating tour of the theatres where on 3rd December 1967 Dr Christian Barnard, between 1 and 6 am in the morning, quietly and effectively, performed the world’s first successful heart transplant.

Inside the Museum.

Theatres A and B, are the original General Surgery theatres used for the first human heart transplant. Everything in them, is laid out to create a fully authentic representation of the day, with life like replicas of the history making characters who were there. It’s so real, I had to look twice to see they were models, commissioned by the Museum of a local film effects company. There is a room dedicated to both recipient and donor, honouring their lives, and a wonderful collection of letters that both praise and criticise the work. Allow enough time to read through them. Also the video is a must, hearing Christian Barnard talk, learning more about his vision and purpose, his brilliance and his mantra.

How the night played out.

The world’s first human heart transplant, led by Professor Christiaan Neethling Barnard, played out within the walls of the Charles Saint Theatre, at Groote Schuur Hospital. After having been declared brain dead, Denise Darvall was brought to Theatre B, the donor theatre, shortly after midnight. She was prepared for surgery by Dr Marius Barnard and his team.

At 03.00 am her heart was eventually removed for transplantation into the recipient Louis Washkansky who lay waiting in the adjoining Theatre A.  Her kidneys were harvested and sent to Karl Bremer hospital, where they helped save a young boy’s life. In Theatre A, Professor Chris Barnard, assisted by Rodney Hewitson, carefully sewed the donor heart into place in Washkansky’s chest.

In total the operation lasted four and three quarter hours. At precisely 06.13 am Washkansky’s new heart began to beat strongly and Professor Chris Barnard looked with shining eyes at his team and said in Afrikaans “Dit gaan werk.” – “It’s going to work.”


Denise Darvall’s theatre.


Recipient Louis Washkansky during the surgery.


Transplantation recipient Louis Washkansky after the surgery.

The Day of the Accident.

Saturday the 2nd December 1967, was a fresh summer’s day in Cape Town and the locals were out in full force, enjoying the pre-Christmas bustle. Among them were 25-year old Denise Darvall with her parents Edward and Myrtle as well as her youngest brother, Keith. All four were oblivious of the accident which would shortly claim two of their lives and set in motion a chain of events, that would change the face of open heart surgery forever.

The Most Famous Heart in Cape Town.

On that fateful day, the 2nd December 1967, Denise Darvall and her mother stopped on Main Road, Salt River, to buy a cream cake for their afternoon tea visit.  As they were crossing over the road, they were run over by a drunk driver. Shortly after the accident, which was just a km from Groote Schuur, Ann Washkansky drove past the accident scene on her way back from visiting her dying husband.

A sensitive woman, she averted her gaze, unaware that within 12 hours one of the broken bodies lying in the road would give her husband a heart and another chance at life. Mrs Washkansky hated the idea that in order for her husband to have a new heart somebody else would have to die. Worse still, she later regretted knowing who the donor was: “Knowing about that girl, and her life and her family, made it all so inhuman, somehow. My husband’s heart had an identity. It wasn’t just a piece of flesh anymore.”

Indeed, Denise Darvall’s heart cannot be considered “just a piece of flesh” – it is arguably the most famous heart in history: the first heart selflessly donated to save a man’s life and a heart which subsequently, played a vital role in the advancement of medical knowledge. In recognition of this enormous act of generosity, the Heart of Cape Town Museum pays tribute to the Darvall family’s courage and honours the memory of Denise Darvall.

Important to note that the operation was a success, and that the donor did not survive as a result of the condition of his lungs, terribly impacted by years of smoking, and not the heart, which kept on beating until the system shut it down.


Christiaan Neethling Barnard.
(8 November 1922 – 2 September 2001)

Christiaan Barnard was a multi-faceted being who aroused respect and admiration as well as controversy and sometimes, profound dislike. He fulfilled many roles including those of the world’s best-known surgeon, an innovative researcher, a dedicated care-giver, an ambassador for his country, a writer, a businessman as well as a husband and a father. The one common thread, however, which ran through Barnard’s many pursuits, was a considerable drive and focus which enabled him to feed his thirst for achievement, a thirst which earned him an indelible position in the annals of medical history. The first to perform the ultimate operation, Barnard lived by the maxim: “One life is enough, if well lived.”

Museum Details.

The Heart of Cape Town Museum is located at Groote Schuur Hospital in Main Road, Observatory. Find more info and many detailed stories at, but better still, book a tour to visit. There are guided tours 7 days a week at 09:00, 11:00, 13:00 and15:00 with specially pre-arranged tours offered at 17:00. Call +27 214041967 or e-mail: if you need more. Cost was R150.00 per person.

I strongly recommend that you ask for Don Mackenzie, who guided us and offered many personal anecdotes from the many trips that he did with Dr Christian Barnard, as both friend and official photographer.

Sign up as an Organ Donor.

My visit formed part of the work that I am doing to promote organ donation. Working with the Orgamites, who are on a mission to get more people to have the conversation with their loved ones, and to sign up as donors. The Orgamites are cute as can be, comprising of Mr Bone and his mighty organ friends, and have a strong focus on education for children, while raising awareness and funds for this essential work. Do visit their website to learn more and to register as an organ donor – You could potentially save seven lives. In South Africa you can also look to The Organ Donor Foundation


With Kathryn Liddell, who I’m working with on the Orgamites campaign.

NOTE: Above stories and details are off the museum’s website.

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Dawn Bradnick JorgensenDawn Jorgensen
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