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The battle for hearts and minds

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 02 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3566
  1. Alfred Browne, former medical correspondent, Press Association
  1. alfredbrowne0pa{at}

    The first human heart transplantation attracted unprecedented media attention, in turn threatening the public’s trust in doctors, finds Alfred Browne, a medical correspondent during that period

    A “gee whiz” response by the press to the most famous of all medical operations, the first human heart transplantation, turned what should have been just a medical first step into a lasting, headline grabbing phenomenon, Ayesha Nathoo claims in Hearts Exposed. Nathoo, a research fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, says that lavish publicity and a lack of critical medical analysis hyped up public expectations over the operation—carried out by the South African surgeon Christian Barnard on Sunday 3 December 1967. A worldwide rush by surgeons to repeat the operation, when medical knowhow was lacking, resulted in a moratorium on the operation by the end of 1969, not lifted for a decade.

    Nathoo discloses that when the BBC decided to cover the operation on a science entertainment programme, Tomorrow’s World, its producers were told to emphasise “gee-whizzery.” Two months after Barnard’s two operations, 10 million viewers watched Dr Barnard Faces …

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