Christiaan Barnard Endorses Cosmetics and the Famous Heart Surgeon Gets Creamed

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ever since Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the first heart transplant, began promoting anti-aging cosmetics, the medical world has reacted as though Hippocrates had opened a health and beauty-aids store. Dermatologists charge that the claims he is making for Glycel, a line of skincare cosmetics marketed by Alfin Fragrances, are excessive. They find his endorsement of the products offensive.

"You know," Barnard answers, "I could have made millions after the first transplant if I had allowed my name to be used. I was offered $50,000 for the gloves I wore, but I had thrown them away. I was offered unbelievable money to sit next to a bottle of French brandy. But I never wanted to exploit what I had done. I worked very, very hard for my money, and through hard work and the gifts God gave me, I became a credit to my name. Why then can't I use it? Why is the field of medicine sacred?"

He is speaking very quickly now, still upset from a morning TV taping where an interviewer demanded to know how much he was paid for hawking face cream.

"Doctors," he continues, "are now using their names on heart valves and other developments that are sold commercially. I developed heart valves and never took money. I developed original surgical procedures and never put my name to them. I never did any of that until the time came when I could not be a practicing surgeon anymore."

He holds up hands stiffened and lumpy from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition he controls with anti-inflammatory drugs. Outside the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he is stopping during a 15-day tour to promote Glycel, the sky is gray, the air soaked from a day of rain. He walks stiffly down steps like a man on crutches, only the crutches are his legs. Two days later, in a San Francisco waterfront restaurant, he will order crab legs, clumsily drop several of them while trying to pry out meat, finally push the plate away.

"I think there is a difference between a practicing doctor and the doctor I am," he concludes. "Now I am a doctor only in the fact that I have doctor's degrees."

Yet Barnard is hardly ready to donate his body to science. For an arthritic retiree of 63, he is remarkably lively, extremely busy and extraordinarily well-paid. In promotional material for Glycel, he wears a white smock, holds test tubes and presents himself as a man of medicine. Every package of the cosmetic states that it "contains ingredient developed in Switzerland by Christiaan Barnard, M.D." The ingredient is called glycosphingolipids, or GSL, and is described in company literature as "perhaps the single most important development in skincare in over a decade."

Such hyperbole from the skincare industry is not uncommon, since cosmetics companies do not earn their profits through modesty. "If Barnard weren't a world-famous surgeon, no one would pay any attention," says Dr. Albert Kligman, a professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. "I wouldn't give the slightest goddamn if Estée Lauder said what Barnard is saying. But when a world-famous surgeon makes medical claims, people are going to pay attention. He's being unethical any way you look at it."

The New York Times quoted Dr. Norman Orentreich, another prominent dermatologist, as saying, "I feel sad that Dr. Barnard has come to be a kind of huckster medical man." And on ABC's Nightline, medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson said, "I am not just saddened and angered but appalled."

How vigorously Barnard peddles the product depends on his mood, but in person he is far more prudent than in Glycel ads—one of which quotes him as saying that "GSL can make older skin behave and look like younger skin." He uses the $60 Glycel day cream as an after-shave and says, "It's just like this girl said to me: 'If it does something, I don't want to be left out.' My approach is the same."

When asked to explain the anti-aging properties of GSL, Barnard's logic works like this: Under laboratory conditions, GSL has been shown to aid the healing of cells damaged by environmental factors, such as ultraviolet light. Older cells contain less GSL than younger cells and do not heal as quickly. So when you apply GSL to older cells to make them heal more quickly, you are in effect causing them to behave like younger cells.

Orentreich replies that Barnard is "subverting basic scientific knowledge." He adds, "A molecule that size has as much chance of getting into your skin as an elephant has of getting into your office." Barnard claims the molecule is quite small and is aided in its penetration by a patented transdermal carrier. It's sort of like greasing the door for the elephant.

"Will GSL make a person look younger?" he is asked.

"That's not a claim I make," he says.

"How can it be called anti-aging?"

"Anti-aging is a very loose term."

A statement like that might wrinkle scientific brows, but customers are lining up to buy Glycel in all shapes, sizes and promises. There are nine different products in the line, from a $25 facial scrub to a $75 (for one ounce) anti-aging cream, and as recently as last week Alfin Fragrances was having difficulty meeting retail store requests for supplies. Says Judy Jinkins, who sells Glycel at Bullock's in Mission Viejo: "A lot of my customers say that everything in the cosmetic business is a joke and that they have $500 worth of stuff just like it under the sink. Then they buy it. There's no logic."

Barnard is the perfect prospective customer, for he truly believes that the horrors of aging are skin-deep. He looks younger than his age, but his fine hair is beginning to gray, and his strong Afrikaner jawline is starting to crumble. "I don't like signs of old age on myself. I resent them," he declares.

No hypocrite, Barnard currently is living with Karen Setzkorn, 22, a tall, dimpled and serene young woman from South Africa whose mother once took a snapshot of her sitting on Barnard's lap. She was 6, and he was visiting her parents' beach house. She has at least one quality lacking in Barnard's two ex-wives: an ability to ignore his interest in other women. "The other night, at a cocktail party in Texas, he was really enjoying being photographed with this one little blond girl," she says. "I didn't feel threatened because I know what's between us and I'm not scared by any little blonde."

Barnard was born in Beaufort West, about 300 miles from Cape Town, the son of a Dutch Reformed minister. Early on he ascertained that women were at least one of the callings in his life. "To me at 14," he sighs, "love was to hold a girl's hand, wind up the gramophone." He closes his eyes. "To dance with a girl, oh my God!" He went to medical school in Cape Town and married Aletta Louw, the nurse who helped support him. They had two children, Deirdre, now 34, and Andre, who at age 31 drowned in a bathtub after injecting drugs. "To me, he's not dead, I just don't see him," Barnard says.

In 1957 he was studying open-heart surgery in the U.S. when he felt the first twinges of the arthritis that would eventually end his career. Barnard would become a pioneer surgeon despite crippled hands, as admirable an achievement as Beethoven composing while deaf. On Dec. 3, 1967, at Groote Schuur Hospital, he performed the first successful heart transplant on Louis Washkansky, who lived 18 days.

"After the operation I told my assistant we better tell somebody, so we called the superintendent of the hospital, and he said, 'Why are you waking me so early?' There were no reporters, no cameras, and when I drove home that morning I heard a radio broadcast saying a team of doctors had done the first transplant. A friend called me and said, 'Chris, I know it was you. If they don't mention your name, I'm going to call and tell them.' "

The word got out. Soon he was more celebrity than surgeon, sharing newspaper items with Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida while his wife remained at home. After one trip abroad he was met at the airport by his secretary with a carload of his clothes. That was the end of his first marriage. He protests that the media exaggerated his amorous exploits, that the only time he was in Sophia's bedroom, Sophia wasn't there. As for Gina: "I was only with her one day and one night."

He married again. Barbara Zoellner was 19. He was 47. They had two boys, Frederick and Christiaan, now 14 and 12, and she divorced him in 1982. He says she married too young. He says there were too many stories about him partying at Studio 54. "I still love her very much and I think in her life I'm the number one man, although at one stage she didn't feel that way," he says. "You see, I'm very comfortable with Karen, and I'm not going to say to her, 'You leave, I'm going back to my second wife.' I don't feel that way anyway."

He changes the subject. He does that a lot.

He is a restless man, mentally as well as physically, often as fascinated by the trivial as by the meaningful. At one moment, he laments the popular appetite for junk food, wondering with astonishment how Americans can snack so continuously. "You are the worst eaters in the world," he says. Minutes later he is discoursing professorially on the commercial possibilities of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. He is always asking questions, questions about the seating rituals at the Polo Lounge, questions about security guards at TV stations. His ingenuousness seems deliberate, a style that must have served him well in the '60s, when he was thrust into the company of princes, presidents and starlets. The brilliant but naive country doctor charmed them all.

When he talks medicine, the artlessness disappears, and he is neither shy nor hesitant. He says, "Choose any surgeon who was not a playboy and compare us. My results in surgery were comparable with the best in the world." That he would now be criticized because he is endorsing a commercial product is insulting to him.

On Nightline, correspondent George Strait said that for his work with Glycel, Barnard "reportedly will receive a percentage of all sales, plus a $4 million flat fee." What Barnard will get this year, according to a spokesman for Al-fin Fragrances, a publicly owned company, is about $400,000. (He is also under contract to the Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where he is paid $26,500 a month to be scientist-in-residence, both a consulting and public relations position.)

The $400,000 from Alfin Fragrances breaks down into $90,000 for consulting and promotion, more than $100,000 in royalties on sales, and $200,000 as his share of the approximately $3.5 million that Alfin paid for worldwide rights to Glycel. Irwin Alfin, the company president, says Barnard may earn even more.

Barnard says the criticism of his Glycel fees isn't as painful to him as questions about his good intentions. "What hurts is that I am not harming anyone by what I am doing," he says. "I have no bad aims. I'm trying to help people enjoy life."

He adds that he is an old soldier, that he was criticized when he performed the first transplant and that he is used to such talk. One afternoon in Los Angeles, the same day that his hands swelled painfully, Barnard rose before a department store lunch group and began talking about Philip Blaiberg, the second man to receive a heart from him. He said Blaiberg was asked if the operation was worth it, and Blaiberg said yes. He knew it the moment he woke up and took his first breath.

Barnard swallowed, stood speechless for a dozen heartbeats, maybe more. He seemed near tears as he thought about his patients and how much they had meant to him. His face looked very old, the face of a man who cannot comprehend how he has suddenly come to be so misunderstood. Then he forced a smile, that endearing overbite grin, and it was as though he were young again.

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