Some of the most astonishing medical breakthroughs have had an African connection. On December 3 1967, Christiaan Barnard, a white South African performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant on Lois Wahskansky. The heart that Wahskansky received was donated by a young woman who had been pronounced brain dead following a road accident in Cape Town a day before the operation. The operation took nine hours and had 30 medical personnel in attendance.
Wahasansky died 18 days later, but Barnard’s subsequent heart transplant patients lived for longer periods.
Another milestone was marked by the first successful separation of conjoined twins, joined at the head. This was performed by a person also with an African connection, albeit in the sense of ethnicity. Benjamin Carson, an African American. He performed the intricate operation on German infants in In 1997, Carson later travelled to South Africa to lead a team of Zambian and South African specialists in an operation to separate conjoined twins—11-month old Luka and Joseph Banda from Zambia who had their heads joined at the back. The operation lasted 28 hours. They were successfully separated and now live normal lives.
Carson defied many odds in his life. Along with his brother, Curtis, he was raised by a single parent—their mother who had separated from their father. Ben could not spell any word or answer any question in class, and would bring home school reports that made awful reading. Everybody in his class used to ridicule him, calling him “the dumbest child in the world”.
Sonya Carson, Ben’s mother, was probably the single most important influence on his life. She raised her sons in a strict but loving manner. She once declared that they would no longer watch television in their home, except for two pre-selected programmes per week. The boys were stopped from playing outside the home with friends. Instead, they were supposed to read two books from the library each per week. Sonya demanded that they should summarise each book for her to assess. She had had little education herself and could hardly read, but she nevertheless pretended that she understood the book summaries.
The wonderful mother always encouraged her sons to try their best. She told them: “Anything that anybody can do, you, can also do—only you can do it better.”
As the boys were walking to school one morning, Ben noticed a piece of rock that looked different from the rest on a footpath where quarry stone had been placed. He picked up that piece of rock for closer examination. At the library, he asked for a book on rocks and got it.
One morning, a teacher brought a piece of rock to class and asked the class if they could recognise it. You could hear a pin drop in the silence that followed. Ben hesitantly raised his hand, and everybody expected that he would say something stupid.
“It is obsidian.” He said. “And it is formed by the super-cooling of lava when it hits the water.”
“Benjamin, that is absolutely, absolutely right,” the teacher said with a tone of surprise.
From then on, Ben began to fly. His grades improved tremendously. Two years later, he was the best pupil in his class, and he never looked back. He went on to study at Yale University for his BA and the University of Michigan for his MD. At 33, Dr Benjamin Carson became the youngest person to hold the position of director at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has received many accolades in his life, including 38 honorary degrees.
We can search within our own continent and our own ethnicity for flashes of brilliance. On May 4 2015, Ben Carson announced his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 Presidential elections.