A Baby, a Baboon Heart, and the Transplant Heard Round the World: The Story of the First Neonatal Cardiac Xenotransplant in History

The year 1984… a year that is synonymous with cultural turning points. Apple introduced the Mac personal computer. NASA launched the space shuttle Discovery. The year George Orwell imagined in his dystopian novel 1984 predicted a future that was filled with political correctness which he called “Newspeak,” and governmental surveillance he made famous with the phrase, “Big brother is watching you.” The spot-on predictions are numerous, yet he did not go so far as to predict that in 1984 the medical establishment would break new ground and transplant a baboon heart into a human baby.

Stop and take in the enormity of that last statement. In 1984 surgeons put the beating heart of one species into another and it worked, even if only for a short while, and the boundaries between animal and human would never be quite the same.

Stephanie Fae Beauclair, better known to history as Baby Fae, was born October 14, 1984 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome is a fatal condition in which the left side of the heart is severely underdeveloped. Baby Fae needed a heart transplant to survive but a human heart was not available to her. What happened next challenged the boundaries of medical science and bioethics.

Animal to human transplants had been attempted as early as the beginning of the 20th century. In the mid-1960s, Dr. Jim Hardy at the University of Mississippi, in Jackson, had transplanted a chimpanzee heart into a patient with terrible heart disease whom he couldn’t wean off the heart/lung machine. The chimpanzee heart sustained the man’s life for under an hour but he did not survive the operating room. When they performed an autopsy it turned out that the aged chimp who had served as the donor had been —> Read More