JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africans paid tribute to pioneering heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard who died on Sunday more than three decades after he performed the first human heart transplant.
The 78-year-old doctor, who became a global celebrity with his pioneering operation, died at a hotel while on holiday in Cyprus, officials said.
"Professor Barnard was a world famous cardiac surgeon of outstanding abilities," said Peter Mitchell, chief medical superintendent at Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town where Barnard performed the revolutionary operation in 1967.
"The hospital is deeply shocked and saddened by his sudden death," Mitchell added. "Our sincere condolences go to his family."
Barnard made medical history when he sliced open the chest of Louis Washkansky, a 53-year-old grocer, and replaced the dying man's heart with a healthy organ taken from a young woman who had died in a car accident.
Washkansky lived for only 18 days, but the groundbreaking operation spread the then 45-year-old Barnard's fame around the world.
Barnard retired from teaching in 1983 after performing 75 transplants but remained committed to improving the lives of patients through his Chris Barnard Foundation, established in 1998 to promote pediatric medicine throughout the world.
Last year Barnard teamed up with the country's top female heart surgeon, Susan Vosloo, to give a life-saving operation to a 13-month-old boy from Zimbabwe after meeting the child while he was in Harare to give money to AIDS orphans.
"I think Professor Barnard has been one of the greatest people I ever knew," Vosloo told Reuters. "He really made an enormous contribution to medical history not only for the transplant which people know about," she added.
Vosloo said Barnard also carried out groundbreaking work on tuberculosis and on babies with congenital heart defects.
"I think we will certainly remember him for his brilliant mind and for his sense of humor," she said.
The handsome surgeon enjoyed a playboy existance, partying with the likes of Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Richard Burton. He met the pope and world leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Lyndon Johnson.