Washkansky was a Lithuanian Jew who migrated with his friends from Slabodka to South Africa in 1922, aged nine, and became a grocer in Cape Town. Washkansky saw active service in World War II in East and North Africa and Italy.
He was an avid sportsman. He took part in football, swimming, and weightlifting. However, late in his life his health declined substantially: he was diabetic, and had an incurable heart disease, causing him to suffer three heart attacks. The last of these heart attacks led to congestive heart failure.
In April 1966, Washkansky visited Groote Schuur Hospital due to his pre-existing illness. He was first seen by Dr. Barry Kaplan, who in July 1966 had asked if Mr Christiaan Barnard would be willing to attend Washkansky. Barnard had performed a number of laboratory tests and an in-depth examination on Washkansky and came to the conclusion that nothing could be done to help him. In January 1967, Washkansky was referred to Dr. Mervyn Gotsman, a cardiologist at the Cardiac Clinic in Groote Schuur Hospital due to refractory heart failure. Washkansky underwent cardiac catheterisation, confirming severe heart failure and was subsequently referred to Barnard for possible surgery.
He received his heart transplant on 3 December 1967, at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The nine-hour operation began at 1 a.m. when surgeons removed the heart of 25-year-old Denise Darvall, who had very recently been fatally injured in a car accident. The procedure was performed by Christiaan Barnard.
Although Washkansky died of pneumonia eighteen days after the transplant because of a weakened immune system, Barnard regarded the surgery as a success because the heart was "not being stimulated by an electrical machine" but completely by Washkansky. As Barnard related in his book, One Life, a decision was made on the fifth postoperative day to bombard Washkansky's system with immunosuppressants to guard against a potential rejection of the new heart. As later heart transplants would reveal, the signs noted at that time were part of a resettling program for the new heart and not necessarily an indication of rejection. Of course, as Washkansky and everyone else understood, the operation had never been done before, was entirely experimental, and they were, in effect, feeling their way in the dark. Today, however, the heart transplant operation is virtually routine.
- 1967 Year In Review
- Fisher, John. "To Transplant and Beyond". Heart-transplants. Retrieved 1 December 2009.
- Piller, Laurence William. The Cardiac Clinic, Groote Schuur Hospital 1951-1972. The Schrire Years. Published by comPress, 2000.
- McLean, Alison (December 2007). "December Anniversaries - History & Archaeology". Smithsonian. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
- The Associated Press (1967-12-04). "Heart Transplant Keeps Man Alive in South Africa". The New York Times. p. Front Page.
- "Pneumonia Blamed in Transplant Patient's Death". The New York Times. 1967-12-21. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
- South African history: Louis Washkansky
- World's First Heart Transplant1
- World's First Heart Transplant2
- Denise Darvall the donor for the World's First Heart Transplant
- Article from Time Magazine, 29 December 1967
- Article from Life Magazine, 15 December 1967