By Alex Tresniowski
Updated September 17, 2001 12:00 PM

Still dashing and ruggedly handsome in his late 60s, Dr. Christiaan Barnard was chatting with a friend on an airplane when he confided his plans to marry an 18-year-old woman. “I told him, ‘Chris, when men our age marry a young woman, it may prove fatal,’ ” recalls fellow surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley. “And Chris said, ‘Well, if she dies, she dies. I’ll just get a younger one.’ ”

Celebrated for performing the world’s first human heart transplant, Barnard was as well-known for his quick wit and joie de vivre as for his medical innovations. Indeed, it was while vacationing in Paphos, Cyprus, Sept. 2 that the iconoclastic Barnard, 78, succumbed to his chronic asthma. “He had suffered an asthma attack the night before, but he used an inhaler and it was over within minutes,” says his friend and representative Walter Lutschinger. The next morning he wasn’t so lucky. Barnard collapsed by the pool

at the luxury Coral Bay Hotel while fumbling with his inhaler.

In a life filled with spectacular achievement, Barnard routinely went against the grain. Born to dire poverty in South Africa, he persevered to become a skilled surgeon made famous by that 1967 transplant. “He had the courage to be the first,” says longtime colleague Dr. David K.C. Cooper of Harvard Medical School. “That was his major contribution.” Barnard’s private life was no less memorable. Married and divorced three times, he had a highly publicized affair with Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida and made no secret of his weakness for women or his addiction to the spotlight. “He enjoyed being famous because he could meet people from the Pope to Sophia Loren,” says Cooper.

Barnard was one of five sons born to a Calvinist preacher and his wife in Beaufort West, South Africa, 250 miles north of Cape Town. Driven, he would later say, by a desire to make money, he began studying medicine at the University of Cape Town. As the senior cardiothoracic surgeon at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, he did several pioneering heart transplants on dogs. At the time, the technology existed for a human transplant, and the primary barrier seemed moral rather than medical. “None of us could conceive of a legitimate or ethical way to harvest a beating heart,” says Cooley, who in 1968 performed the first successful transplant in the U.S.

Barnard overcame the dilemma on Dec. 3, 1967. Denise Darvall, a 25-year-old woman, was brought to the hospital after a car crash. Barnard and his team found that, though her heart was beating, her brain had stopped functioning. The moment she died, they removed her heart and put it in the chest of Louis Washkansky, 55, a businessman suffering from end-stage coronary artery disease. “It is to Barnard’s credit that he identified a patient with irreversible brain injury and removed her heart,” says Cooley.

Washkansky survived only 18 days, dying from pneumonia that overwhelmed his weakened system. But today, improvements in anti-rejection drugs have made the procedure almost routine. About 85 percent of the more than 2,000 people who receive transplants annually survive for at least a year, and three-

quarters live for five years or more.

Barnard’s success shot him from obscurity to global fame, and he basked in his new lifestyle. “Maybe that was one of the reasons for a lot of my trouble—because I never acted like a big professor,” he once remarked. “I liked girls and dancing.” Barnard’s late-’60s affair with Lollo-brigida likely contributed to the end of his two-decade marriage to Aletta Louw, a nurse. He broke with his second wife, Johannesburg socialite Barbara Zoellner, in 1982 after 12 years. His third marriage, to model Karin Setzkorn, 36, unraveled when she filed for divorce in ’99. “She left him, and he still loved her,” says his granddaughter Karen Visser, 21. “He was always seeking that peace he could never find.” In all, Barnard fathered six children, one of whom, Andre, died of a drug overdose in 1984.

Plagued by arthritis, Barnard retired from surgery in 1983. He wrote four well-received thrillers and was set to embark on a promotional tour for his latest book, 50 Ways to a Healthy Heart, when he died. He will be buried in a small garden behind his childhood home in Beaufort West. “He wanted,” says Lutschinger, “to go back to where he came from: a little town in the middle of nowhere.” Barnard’s legacy, however, continues to reach much further. “He could stand being alone, but he could not stand loneliness,” says his daughter Deirdre Visser, 51. “The man belonged to the world.”

Alex Tresniowski

Patricia B. Smith in Houston, Toula Vlahou in Athens, Ginanne Brownell in London and Michael Hamlyn in Cape Town