But not just any old surgeon. On December 3, 1967, at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, Barnard successfully transplanted the heart from a car crash victim into the body of Louis Washkansky, a terminally ill grocer.
Sadly, although the operation was successful, Washkansky was a very sick man. Eighteen days after the operation, he died of double pneumonia, contracted as a result of drugs administered to lower his immune system in a bid to lessen the chance of his body rejecting the new heart.
Barnard was born in 1922, the son of a preacher from South Africa's Great Karoo plateau. He had been studying transplant techniques since the 1950s. His bold approach sometimes upset the medical establishment but he got results.
Propelled into the international spotlight after the excitement of his pioneering operation, Barnard became a familiar figure on the jetset circuit. He met the Pope and President Johnson. A handsome man, he was often seen out on the town with the world's most beautiful women, including Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabrigida. He was married three times and had six children. Sex, he declared, kept you young.
Despite Barnard's reputation as a ladies' man, his views on the physical heart were down to earth: "For me the heart has always been an organ without any mystique attached to it ... merely a primitive pump." And partying didn't distract him from refining his techniques: by the late 1970s, a significant number of his patients were surviving several years after their transplant operations.
He was head of Groote Schur's cardiac unit until 1983. In retirement, he remained active in the medical field, researching the ageing process. He died in 2001.