World’s first heart transplant 50 years ago is commemorated on new Belgian silver coin

Belgium has launched a new silver coin commemorating half a century since Christiaan Barnard undertook the first human heart transplant. The momentous event took place in 1967 in South Africa, ironically the same year the Krugerrand hit the market. Deemed a success, we now consider heart transplants as a solid weapon in our armoury for the fight against disease.

The coin is struck in a little under half an ounce of sterling 0.925 silver. The reverse depicts a representation of an actual heart overlaid onto a symbolic one. Both are finished with red colour, the former with just selective highlights. An ECG reading crosses between them. There are quite a few inscriptions on this side of the coin. The title reads ‘THE FIRST HEART TRANSPLANT CAPETOWN SOUTH AFRICA’ along with the date ‘3 December 1967’

The obverse carries the denomination, date and issuing country, the last in three languages. A map of Europe dominates the centre area. The coin is usually packaged in a neat wooden box and comes with a certificate of authenticity. We generally see these selling in the €45-50 range and they should be shipping towards the end of April. An interesting subject worthy of coverage.


Christiaan Neethling Barnard (8 November 1922 – 2 September 2001) was a South African cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s second overall heart transplant and first human-to-human heart transplant on December 3, 1967 (James Hardy did a xenotransplant in 1964). Growing up in Beaufort West, Cape Province, he studied medicine and worked in that field for several years in his native country. In 1955, he travelled to the United States for postgraduate training under open heart surgery pioneer Walt Lillehei, where he first became acquainted with the future heart transplantation surgeon Norman Shumway. Upon returning to South Africa in 1958, Barnard was appointed head of the Department of Experiment Surgery at the Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town.

On 3 December 1967, Barnard transplanted a heart from a person who had just died from a head injury, with full permission of the donor’s family, into the chest of a 54-year-old Louis Washkansky. Washkansky regained full consciousness and lived for eighteen days, even spending time with his wife, before he died of pneumonia, with the reduction of his immune system by the anti-rejection drugs being a major contributing factor. However, Barnard’s second transplant patient Philip Blaiberg at the beginning of 1968 lived for nineteen months and was able to go home from the hospital.

He retired as Head of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery in Cape Town in 1983 after developing rheumatoid arthritis in his hands which ended his surgical career. He became interested in anti-aging research, and in 1986 his reputation suffered when he promoted Glycel, an expensive “anti-aging” skin cream, whose approval was withdrawn by the United States Food and Drug Administration soon thereafter. During his remaining years, he established the Christiaan Barnard Foundation, dedicated to helping underprivileged children throughout the world. He died in 2001 at the age of 78 after an asthma attack.


COMPOSITION 0.925 silver
WEIGHT 14.6 grams
DIAMETER 30.0 mm
BOX / COA  Yes / Yes