The Dark Heart of Doctor Weird

Life of the Mind

I almost missed this one. Almost. The fact that I ultimately did not is thanks to a compartment in my mind that houses my own Catalogue of Unsolved Cases. The files in it are all open. They are all waiting for a conclusive discovery that will close the case. It can take days, weeks or years. Sometimes it can even take decades, as it did in this case. Usually the clincher is delivered by serendipity. Patience is needed.

Believe it or not

This strange tale began many years ago, when I was an eager cub reporter at The Argus in Cape Town. At a desk alongside mine in the newsroom sat a colleague, another junior newshound, called Bruce Heilbuth. Bruce was a likeable fellow, with a sardonic air, a love of the absurd and a smile that permanently wanted to happen. We were friends.

One day Bruce told me the following story. I was keen to listen because Bruce told a good story — keen even though I knew well enough to be wary of a potential leg-pull.

The story was something his father had told him. Bruce’s father was also called Bruce and had had a long career at The Argus. He was then a senior editor at the paper and still had a reputation as a wicked prankster that had followed him from his early days as a junior reporter, just as his son and I were then.

During his early years on the beat Bruce snr covered news from Groote Schuur hospital (groote schuur means “great facade”), an imposing building in Cape Dutch style on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, adjacent to Table Mountain. At the hospital Bruce Heilbuth got to hear about, and later became acquainted with, a charismatic young Afrikaans heart surgeon who, the whisper was, had a secret laboratory. In this laboratory the young surgeon, who was hugely egotistic and notoriously indiscreet about his own acumen, was said to be conducting bizarre experiments on dogs.

Bruce wheedled his way, no doubt through liberal use of flattery, into this laboratory to be shown around by the swaggering surgeon. And there, Bruce later told his son, he saw something that astonished him and gave him the creeps. It was a dog. Well, almost a dog. It was just the head of a dog, entubed and connected to life-supporting apparatuses.

Bruce finished his bizarre and hard-to-credit tale with the following flourish: the dog’s head, he said, was sufficiently alive to lap at a bowl of water when presented with it.

“Oh, come on, Bruce,” I said to Bruce junior. “Pull the other leg. If you believe such codswallop I certainly don’t. A head without a body. Alive? Huh!”

And there the story rested, except for me to tell you now that the charismatic young Afrikaans surgeon was Chris Barnard.

Let me help you, although I am sure it is not necessary. The name Chris Barnard will ring a bell. Dr Barnard astonished the world with the first-ever human heart transplant, a feat he accomplished at Groote Schuur Hospital on December 3rd 1967. Honours, fame and adulation followed. He was celebrated around the world and was said, even, to have had affairs with movie goddesses Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. (He did, indeed, appear in public with these women but I do not regard that as sufficient to claim an affair.) In his autobiography One Life Barnard wrote that he had been “consumed and intoxicated” by fame.

Hammers on the heart

As great as Barnard’s impact was on the consciousness of the world, as a feat of science along with its philosophical implications (where lies the mystery of life, if not in the heart?) This was as nothing compared to the impact on the South African psyche. To understand this claim I must take you on a walk through the land I grew up in, a country under the yoke of Afrikaner hegemony. The Afrikaners’ political party, the National Party, governed the state with an authoritarian grip. The fact, alone, that the “National Party” was in truth an Afrikaner institution should give you a sense of the claim the Afrikaners lay to the entire nation.

The National Party, spearhead of Afrikaner aspirations, had only one generation previously managed to wrest the country from the Commonwealth, headed by the British crown and had achieved independence as a republic only in 1961.

So there it was: a re-born state, with a colonial past and a present make-up that included a fair number of English-speakers who were of a more liberal political temperament than their Afrikaans compatriots. Not to mention a roughly 85% majority of inhabitants who were neither Afrikaans nor English, but black! The (relatively) new Afrikaner government was striving, with increasing fervour, to disengage the black majority from any claim to South African citizenship. They called it apartheid.

The world became increasingly uncomfortable with what it saw happening in South Africa. And so the Afrikaners hunkered down. They tightened social control. They suppressed dissent. And they started to rev up an escalating campaign of Afrikaner self-assurance and self-justification. In effect, they started a propaganda war against world opinion, which was solid in condemnation of South Africa’s racial policy.

A fair number of us sided with our nation’s critics, not with our masters. What our country stood for made us feel humiliated, and ashamed. But we were greatly outnumbered.

The government engineered conformity and obeisance. They did it by the oldest means in the despot’s black book: fear. Vote for us or bad things will happen to you and your children, a gullible public, already predisposed to kowtow to authority, was told. Specifically, a public nervously seeking protection in a hostile environment, at home as well as abroad, was sensitised to a fear of communism.

There were reds under the beds. They were seducing our intellectuals in (some of) our universities. They worked on (some of) our newspapers. And, conveniently for the propagandists there were actual communist surrogates active as liberation armies on our borders — Angola and Mozambique; and to a lesser degree Rhodesia.

So, there was a threat of communism — partly real but greatly manufactured. And there was an overdose of nationalistic hubris in which everything from sporting prowess to agricultural production was trumpeted and worn like badges of achievement.

Into this febrile maelstrom of ideological turmoil, on a day in early December 1967 a brilliant sun burst onto the firmament of the national soul. A brave and brilliant young Afrikaner, a heart surgeon called Chris Barnard, handsome and swaggering, successfully transplanted a human heart.

The world was astounded and South Africa exalted.

America was months from sending a man to the moon and we took a human heart from one person, and gave it to another.

The resonant symbolism of these two acts would define the epoch in which they occurred.

The moonshot would glorify the height of an age of technology. But the transplanted heart would make deeper tracks into the undergrowth of the collective psyche. It would reveal the heart to be merely an organ of the body, thus robbing poets, mystics and priests of the power of their metaphor. It would be a giant step in the growth of an Age of Science & Reason.

Chris Barnard became a global celebrity when such a thing was still a rarity. He was sought by kings and potentates. He consorted with movie goddesses. He consorted with sirens of the screen.

We swelled with pride as his dashing good looks and his toothsome grin was lit by thousands of flashbulbs and he was splashed across the pages of the world. He became one of the most recognised people on the planet.

Man alone, he reflected an Afrikanerdom that was exciting and attractive, and called for admiration. He spoke perfect English strongly accented by his native Afrikaans. It added to his magnetism and charm.

It was not, however, all that it seemed. Not all the pieces of the jigsaw were on the table. To be sure, the missing parts of the picture would have little impact on the global story of Barnard. But in South Africa of the day the full story, had it been known, would have been explosive. And not in a good way. Even today, it will meaningfully erode the Afrikaner’s psychological history. And Chris Barnard is to blame. Not for any wrong but for dissembling. He conveniently skirted an awkward part of his great story.


And so the years tick by and we now reach the present day.

I am sitting, late one sultry night, in The Roamer’s rented villa on the Caribbean island of Nevis. I am idly surfing the internet when something catches my attention. It is a review of a just-published unusual history of the Cold War race in medical science between Russia and the West. And there, to my gaping astonishment, is the story of the dogs.

Specifically, an account is given of Russian scientists who had created a two-headed dog. They grafted the head of one dog onto the body of another.

Not quite a dog’s head without a body, perhaps, but let’s not quibble. This was the body of one dog keeping the head of another alive.

In case your disbelief is not quite dispelled I can report from the book’s review that the Russian scientists turned up with the two-headed dog at a medical conference in the West. And there is a film of this dog. And I have seen the film.

So, believe.

This, however, is not all that made my head spin on this tropical night.

Because there, in the review, is mention of Chris Barnard!

My mind became a kaleidoscope of thoughts.

I could see that on the horizon, just for starters, was an apology owing to the Bruces Heilbuth, senior and junior, for my decades of scepticism about their story.

But that wasn’t enough. Naturally not. This story had legs. But how was I going to follow it up?

The mention of Barnard in what I read this night was sketchy. It just didn’t give me enough to construct the story I am reporting to you now.

What could I do? Here I was on a tropical island. The intellectual resources, shall I say, were not extensive.

Then I realised I could take a shot in the dark.

I knew someone.

This someone is the sort of character it is the blessing of the traveller to meet. He features in The Roamer’s gallery of remarkable persons. His name is Robert George. He is a doctor extraordinaire. And this, briefly, is his story.

Robert George is from Guyana. He is a trim and dapper man. He is refined in his manner and he is deeply intelligent. He practises cardiac surgery at the Nevis hospital in the West Indies. He does, however, have enough time to run a walk-in clinic off the main road that encircles the island, which has a population of a largish English market town.

This is the context in which I got to know Dr George. I found him an appealing character and I was drawn to his eccentric medical practice. He has no reception staff so you can’t book an appointment. You simply turn up and if the doctor is busy you wait until he isn’t.

You pay him for consultation over his desk. The word is in town that he doesn’t always charge. This may be because he forgets but I suspect he inclines to charging his patients who he knows can pay, and goes easy on those who can’t always pay.

This may have something to do with the fact that Robert George learned his science in the USSR, back when there was such a thing. He might have had leanings toward the socialist side of the communist ideal — but I don’t want to draw unwarranted conclusions. Let it rest here: Robert George is a man possessed of a profound humanity.

He speaks Russian, of course, and returned from the Soviet Union with a Russian wife, who practises as an anesthesiologist (anaesthetist?) on a neighbouring West Indian island.

If anyone … anyone I knew or could reach, that is, knew anything about the transplant experiments in Russia in the 1950s and 1960s that someone might just be Robert George.

It was worth a shot.

So it was that a few days later I walked into Dr George’s Nevis surgery and, affecting a nonchalant air, I said: “Okay, Robert, it’s time to talk about the two-headed dogs.”

I wish I could describe the expression on Dr George’s face but my powers fail me. I have a built-in anti-cliche response instinct.

Suffice to say: Dr George was thunderstruck.

“How do you know about that” he asked, incredulously? Thus he revealed that he knew very well what I was talking about.

Later, he and I would talk about this moment. He would say that he never spoke of what he knew because, as he put it: “People would think I was crazy.”

He would marvel, too, that after decades of silence, he would be practising medicine in the West Indies and a roamer from Africa would walk into his surgery and reveal he knew about the dogs.

On my part, I told Dr George everything I knew, as little as it was. I told him how I had first heard the stories from my newspaper friends in Cape Town, the Heilbuths, father and son. And I told him about the online review I had read — which had brought the bizarre story back into the light.

Then Dr George took this peculiar history a big step forward. He said he had known about Chris Barnard considerably before the first heart transplant. While he had never met Barnard, his two professors, leading Russian cardiologists of their time, had talked about their dealings with Dr Barnard. They had, in truth, talked so much about Barnard that the figure of the South African surgeon lodged in Robert Georg’s mind.

Dr George remembers the Russian professors talking about how Barnard would “slip into Russia by the backdoor”, via the Black Sea into the Cold War “closed city” (permit required) of Sebastopol. And onward from there to Moscow.

So far so good. Intriguing. revealing. But still c

Then Robert George offered up what I, as a long-seasoned story chaser, recognised as a clincher.

Dr George said his professors used a word to describe Barnard. But because it was so long ago, he could not remember what this word was … except that it had struck him at the time as a vivid characterisation of someone he had never met..

A few days later, Robert George told me: the word had come to him; It was “egotistic”. And then I knew that the Robert George version of the story was authentic. It would not have been something he had made up. And everyone who did kow Barnard invariably used the words “brash, arrogant, swaggering or egotistic” to describe him.

Story in the bag.

Sort of.

I needed more.

The ramifications of Barnard having covered his Russian tracks were too great, especially in light of the impact it would have on the historical psyche of the Afrikaners soul. I couldn’t afford to be wrong.

Still in the West Indies, I contacted The Roamer’s assistant in London, Shelley Shieff, researcher and administrator of many years’ standing. Get to the London Library and withdraw on my name Barnard’s autobiography in which he has written, in his own hand, his life’s story. It’s called One Life.

“Scour the book for any reference to Russians or Russia,” I briefed her.

She did. There wasn’t. Not a word.

I wasn’t really surprised. Barnard published his life story in his lifetime and it wasn’t likely he would bring down the temple of Barnard around him. To stray into the Russian angle would have been inflammatory and a diversion of attention with wholly unpredictable consequences.

Still, I needed more.

To make things awkward, I had lost the original reference to the online book review. Lost, for reasons not interesting enough to go into here.

So I waited till I got back to London. Normally it is risky to sit on a hot story for too long. The chances of it slipping out are too great. But this one was so hot, and so bizarre, and had languished for so long that I felt I could run the risk.

I knew who could help me, if anyone could. The Wellcome Institute. The Wellcome Institute is a repository of many fascinations, located in the Euston road, a block or two from the august British Library. Its focus is on the history of medicine but it cross-pollinates this history with relevant art and the psychology of the collective. If I got locked inside it I might not raise the alarm for quite some time.

I told the librarians about my pickle. I could tell them what the book was about, and I could say that it had been published in relatively recent time. But more information I did not have. I didn’t know the title, and I did not know the author.

Of course, this is red meat to a good librarian. In a few days they had it. The book is titled Mr Humble & Dr Butcher and it is chiefly the story of an American neurosurgeon, part prominent scientist, part slightly-unhinged dabbler in the bizarre, called Dr Robert White.

The apogee of Dr White’s career was in the mid-decades of the 20th Century. In the mid-1970s he performed the first successful head transplant. If you feel you need to read the preceding sentence again, I invite you to do so.

The absorbing and unsettling story of Dr White is told in the book Mr Humble & Dr Butcher by American author Brandy Shillace. (Full details of the publication are given below.)

The head transplant was done on a monkey, which lived for nine days.

Shades of Barnard, you may be thinking, and his living dog’s head seen by Bruce Heilbuth snr all those years ago at Groote Schuur in Cape Town.

The evidence for this story is stacking up.

Ms Shillace starts the part of the story we are interested in back in 1958, when a Russian scientist-surgeon called Vladimir Demikhov appears at a medical conference in Leipzig, then East Germany. He shows his film of Cerberus, a two-headed dog of his own creation. Demikhov seems to have a feel for symbolism, as Cerberus is, appropriately, the many-headed hound of Greek mythology that guards the entrance to the underworld.

Demikhov claims, according to Shillace, that he has been doing heart transplants on dogs since 1954.

Shillace, furthermore, cites an earlier Russian film that showed the head of a dog “supposedly kept alive by machines”.

Shillace does not specifically claim that Barnard was present in Leipzig. But she describes Barnard as “brazen and self-assured” and says that he claimed that anything the Russians could do he could do better.

She writes that Barnard tried to emulate the Russians. He was partially successful, she states — but his dog died.

So, this is my story. To be clear, The Roamer does not claim that anything he has reported here amounts to definitive proof. But the circumstantial evidence, coming, as it does, from several sources, is persuasive and all points in the same direction.

South Africa has, as everyone knows, moved on. It is writing a new history of itself. But the history of the vexed soul of white South Africa and the Afrikaners will forever be a lodestone of its past. And the true story of one of its greatest sons must be told.

Dr Chris Barnard died on September 2, 2001, in Cyprus.

Mr Humble & Dr Butcher, Brandy Shillace, Simon & Schuster, 2021