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- April 08, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 14
Lion in Winter
Christiaan Barnard Has Had Fame, Scandal—and Few Regrets
Picture—for those who don't remember—George Clooney as a real-life medical wizard. Barnard, then 45, became nearly as well-known a heartthrob as he was a heart surgeon, until the arthritis that had plagued him since his youth forced his retirement in 1983. And though his 1986 endorsement of Glycel, an antiaging skin cream of questionable effectiveness, ultimately besmirched his medical reputation, it also helped make him wealthy enough to buy this farm, where he has embarked on a second career as a novelist-cum-preservationist. When he isn't observing the feeding habits of the wildebeests and springbok he has reintroduced into his once-barren acreage, Barnard is working on his fourth novel, The Donor, a thriller about organ transplants to be published in Britain later this year. "My life," he says, "is much more peaceful now."
For that, he says he is indebted in part to his 31-year-old third wife, a former model named Karin Setzkorn. They own a suburban home in Cape Town and have a son, Armin, 7, whom Barnard adores. "I have never loved anything in my life as much as I love that child," says Barnard, adding that he was often too busy to help raise his four children by his first two marriages. And when he does travel abroad to lecture these days, on topics from euthanasia (he's for it) to abortion (he's generally against it), Barnard no longer worries about offending his wife by being seen with beautiful young women. "Karin is never jealous," says Barnard, who admits to having been a philanderer for most of his life. "She's the type of wife I should have had all along."
The son of an impoverished Afrikaner preacher and his wife, Barnard, who grew up in the South African veld town of Beaufort West, was a struggling physician when he met his first wife, Aletta Louw, a nurse who helped support him as he began his career as a heart surgeon. The couple had two children (Deirdre, now 44, a teacher, and Andre, a doctor who died of an apparent drug overdose at 31, in 1984) by the time Barnard performed his first transplant at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital. "This was a golden era, and all was new in heart surgery," says Dr. John Terblanche, who studied under Barnard and is now chief surgeon at Groote Schuur. "Barnard always was inspiring but demanding. He was determined to do well."
After he implanted the heart of a 25-year-old car-crash victim into the chest of 55-year-old grocer Louis Washkansky, Barnard seemed equally determined to enjoy the adulation that followed. In The Second Life, his 1993 autobiography, he proudly trumpeted his involvement with, among many others, Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida. "I found her to be an exceptionally vibrant and sexually uninhibited woman," Barnard wrote, describing a one-nighter after which Lollobrigida drove him back to his hotel in her Jaguar, naked under her mink coat. When she sent a female aide to pick him up for their second rendezvous, he confided, he bedded the aide instead. "It is only polite," he wrote, "to tip the postman."
Louw, who divorced Barnard in 1969 after 21 years of marriage, did not take kindly to his exploits and has never forgiven him. "As far as I am concerned," she told a South African magazine last year, "he doesn't exist anymore." Barnard had high hopes for the greater powers of understanding of his second wife, Barbara Zoellner, who married him in 1970, when she was 19. But after 12 years and two more children (Frederick, 24, a lawyer, and Christiaan Jr., 22, a model), that union too fell apart. Barnard regrets both splits but feels little guilt. "I never divorced my wives. They divorced me," he says. "The family breaking up was not my idea."
Indeed, he now says his greatest regret is having endorsed Glycel, which was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1987. Reportedly paid more than $4 million for his endorsement, Barnard was scorned by colleagues, including leading dermatologist Dr. Norman Orentreich, who called him a "huckster medical man." Says Barnard: "It was the the biggest mistake I made in my life." Another was his failure to fight harder against his country's apartheid policies. "I opposed it whenever I could," he says, "but I didn't stick my neck out."
And yet, Barnard, who typically puts in 10-hour days on his farm, has neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on his own shortcomings. "I've remained myself—I never thought of myself as the big Herr Professor," he says. "I have always remained Chris Barnard."
DRUSILLA MENAKER in the Karoo
- Drusilla Menaker.
November 26, 2015
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