An Interview with Dr Christiaan Barnard by N. Ram

A Brief Introduction to the Author

Dr Christiaan Barnard was a heart surgeon from South Africa. During the first human heart transplant in the world in December of 1967, he became famous around the world. Dr Barnard did the world’s first double heart transplant in November 1974. It took seven years for that. As he told N. Ram in a detailed interview in September 1997, he didn’t want to be known for these things. Instead, he wanted to be known for something else, he told N. Ram in the interview.


It was when Dr Barnarad was at the top of his work and fame that his country was slammed around the world for its policy of apartheid. His skin colour was not very dark. He told Ram that apartheid was bad for both blacks and whites. When it got in the way of his job as a doctor, he fought against it even if it meant he would die. As a doctor, Dr Barnard points out that apartheid as an ideology and policy is completely irrational and silly.

Dr Barnard’s interviewer is N. Ram, who is/was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in the Indian city of Chennai.

Journalists from the Hindu group of newspapers and magazines are some of India’s best. They write about everything from business to sports. When Ram started working as a journalist in 1966, he was a graduate of the world-renowned Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. There is a good chance that he was the first person in India to do investigative journalism. He has been given a lot of high honours for his work on important projects.

Main Points

Dr Christiaan Barnard was a white surgeon from South Africa. He worked at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. There, in 1967, he performed the first human heart transplant with the assistance of a team of twenty surgeons.

Dr Barnard was interviewed in India by N. Ram, editor-in-chief of the Hindu group of newspapers and magazines. Dr Barnard explained to Ram that people were unaware that, beginning in 1958, he and his team had already performed nine years of open-heart surgery, utilising the heart-lung machine to perform major heart operations.

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Q.1. What is Dr Christiaan Barnard’s achievement that made him a celebrity? What gives him maximum satisfaction?
Ans. Dr Christiaan Barnard was head of a team of surgeons at the Groote Schuur Hospital of Cape Town in South Africa. He and his 20-surgeon team performed the first human transplant in the world. This signal achievement made him an international celebrity.

Despite earning international renown, Dr Barnard did not make money. He was working in a university in an academic atmosphere but they didn’t get paid very well. What kept him there was the excellent research facilities they had. He stayed there despite the low salary because he was very keen on research, on exploring new ideas. He was offered positions all over the world. However, he chose to stay in Cape Town because he enjoyed being an inventor-surgeon. Dr Barnard said that it was not the first heart transplant but treating a variety of abnormal heart diseases in children that gave him the greatest satisfaction. He recalled an incident to highlight his point. He asked a little girl the day before her operation what was wrong with her. She replied that she had a broken heart. Mending her heart gave him the utmost satisfaction.


Q.2 What is apartheid? Narrate in your own words some of the experiences Dr. Barnard had during the apartheid days.
Ans. The word “apartheid” has its origin in Afrikaans language. It literally means ‘separateness’. It refers to the official system of segregation or discrimination on racial grounds formerly in force in South Africa. The National Party, on coming to power in 1948, introduced the policy of separateness between whites and the coloured and black people.
Such a policy was totally unacceptable to Dr. Barnard. In the 1970’s he gave a lecture to the South African Chamber of Commerce. He compared apartheid laws with the Nazi laws. The talk was not very popular.

In another talk, he said that at home the white people usually had black people to work for them. They did everything to take care of their white master’s child if the child was sick. But if the child was taken to hospital, a black nurse could not look after the child. His opposition to the apartheid policy was not liked as he was considered an important asset. A few days later, an attempt was made on his life. As he was coming out of a restaurant with his wife, a car knocked them down, nearly killing them both. A black man was arrested. But it could not be proved in a court that he was there. Some people had seen a waiting car pull out and go for them. Dr. Barnard told N. Ram that the whites also suffered because of apartheid. They were ostracized by the outside world. Once he stopped at a hotel in Dallas. He was with a friend from Syria. When the hotel doorman carrying their suitcases found out that he was from South Africa, he (the doorman) put his suitcase down saying he didn’t carry the suitcases of South Africans.

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Q.3. What is Dr Barnard’s view about apartheid? Did he ever express it publicly? What were the consequences?
Ans. Dr Barnard was strongly opposed to the policy of apartheid, He spoke against it in his public lectures. He compared apartheid laws with the Nazi laws in a lecture to the South African Chamber of Commerce delivered in the 1970s. The talk was not very popular. In another talk, he asked why a black nurse could not look after a white child in a hospital. At home, the white people usually had black people to work for them. They did everything to take care of their white master’s child if the child was sick.

Dr Barnard’s public criticism of apartheid was not liked. An attempt was made on his life. As he was coming out of a restaurant with his wife, some people saw a waiting car pull out and go for them. They were nearly killed.


Q.4. Give an account of the incident of the attempt to murder Dr. Barnard. Why did they want to murder Dr. Barnard?
Ans. Dr. Barnard was coming out of a restaurant with his wife. A car knocked them down almost killing both. A black man was arrested. However, the magistrate trying the case found him not guilty. He said that there was absolutely no evidence he was even there. There were people who said that they had seen a waiting car pull out and go straight for them.
In a lecture he gave to the South African Chamber of Commerce in the 1970,s. Dr. Barnard had compared apartheid laws with the laws made by the Nazis against the Jews. In another talk he gave, he asked why black people could nurse sick white children in the homes they worked but were not allowed to look after them in hospital.

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Dr Barnard was considered an important asset because he had performed the first heart transplant in the world but he was openly opposing apartheid. They were very upset and wanted to murder him.


Q.5 What were the consequences of the apartheid so far as the white citizens of South Africa are concerned?
Ans. Dr Barnard told N. Ram that it was not blacks only who suffered because of apartheid. The whites too suffered severely. In the first place, they had to pay high taxes to support apartheid, to support the “Homelands” they had and maintain all the laws they had.
Then, they were considered outcasts by the outside world. He narrated an incident when he went to Dallas and was with a Syrian friend. They stopped at a hotel. The doorman picked up their suitcases. When he heard them talking in foreign accents, he asked Dr Barnard’s friend where he came from. He said that he was from Syria. The doorman asked Dr Barnard and he said that he came from South Africa. The doorman put his suitcase down and said that he didn’t carry the suitcases of South Africans.

The incident proves Dr Barnard’s point that the whites too had to suffer severely because of the apartheid policy.

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