Celebration planned for 50th anniversary of the first U.S. heart transplant

The landmark heart transplant performed at Stanford in 1968 ultimately led to the success of the operation around the world today.

- By Tracie White

Norman Shumway

Fifty years ago, Norman Shumway, MD, PhD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford, performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States at Stanford Hospital.

To celebrate that landmark event, a daylong conference is set for Jan. 22 at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge at Stanford. Heart experts from Stanford and other institutions will speak, including Shumway’s daughter Sara Shumway, MD, a professor of surgery and vice chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota; and Edward Stinson, MD, professor emeritus of surgery at Stanford, who assisted Shumway during the operation.

The operation, which took place Jan. 6, 1968, sparked a flurry of heart transplantations worldwide, but most institutions and cardiac surgeons quickly desisted because of the high rate of post-surgical deaths. Shumway and his team at Stanford persevered, however, ultimately leading to the success of the operation today.

‘Radical innovation’

“Norman Shumway not only introduced a lifesaving procedure but also made sure that the operation became widespread practice,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “We are honored to celebrate the anniversary of this unforgettable moment in Stanford Medicine’s history, and to recognize Dr. Shumway’s radical innovation and perseverance.”

Bruce Reitz (center left) and Norman Shumway (center right) performed the world's first heart-lung transplant on March 9, 1981, at Stanford Hospital.
Stanford Medical History Center

For nearly a decade following that first surgery, Stanford was virtually the only major institution moving ahead with heart transplant research and continuing to perform operations. The research led to the use of the drug cyclosporine to help prevent the body’s rejection of a donor heart, and to an innovative biopsy technique that helps doctors assess whether a heart transplant is failing before it’s too late. These advances greatly improved patient survival rates.

In 1981, Shumway and Bruce Reitz, MD, who is now a professor emeritus of cardiothoracic surgery, performed the world’s first heart-lung transplant at Stanford.

Shumway died in 2006 at the age of 83.

“We are eternally grateful for Dr. Shumway’s scientific and academic contributions to the field of cardiac surgery,” said Joseph Woo, MD, professor and chair of cardiothoracic surgery. “It is upon these foundational values that we seek to build upon our understanding to better care for patients while striving to continue the momentum he sparked toward discovering novel solutions to combat the No. 1 killer in America, heart disease.”

The total number of heart transplants performed at Stanford reached 1,933 in December.

More than 60,000 successful heart transplants have been performed around the world. Today, 80 percent of patients who receive a heart transplant survive the first year.

The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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