The 1968 Exhibit: First U.S. adult heart transplant, January 6, 1968

“The Corridors of the Heart,” LIFE magazine, January 1968

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of the first adult human-to-human heart transplant in the United States, at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, under the direction of Dr. Norman Shumway. The unidentified 54-year-old patient, who received the heart of a 43-year-old man, died 15 days later of multiple systemic complications. The very first human-to-human heart transplant operation had been performed just a few weeks earlier, in South Africa, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who had consequently become an international celebrity. The operations launched a virtual “space race” in risky heart operations, with doctors on several continents one-upping each other.

The frenzy over (and frequency of) heart transplants only intensified during the period 1968-70, before backing off for some years. In this early, “heroic” period, however, the focus on the heart reflected larger cultural preoccupations with the human body– with knowing about it, visualizing it, exposing it, really seeing it in new and sometimes shocking ways.

life-heart1One of the most vivid reflections of this new obsession with the body and its “mysteries” was to be found in the startling images made by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson (born 1922). His series of photographs of living human fetuses, published in 1965 in LIFE magazine, had an extraordinary–and probably still unmeasured–impact on public consciousness about reproduction and contraception. LIFE sold millions of copies of its issue with the Nilsson photos, and may have hoped to have a similar effect with this issue, from January 19, 1968, with a ten-page spread of still amazing photos of the inside of a beating human heart. Eerily lit and enlarged to fit on LIFE-sized pages, the photos are stunningly reminiscent of the 1966 science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage, about a nano-journey by scientists through the human body. There is, in this January 1968 issue, barely a glimmer of the horrors of the year to come: not a single mention about the war, or civil rights, and only a few bouyant pieces about the emerging presidential race. There’s an article about the boys in the cast of Oliver!, then in production, and critic Richard Schickel’s review (lukewarm) of The Graduate.

Trumping all the news and reviews are those blood-red photos of a beating heart. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Nilsson’s photographs changed the way we saw the world. In the article that accompanies the photos, LIFE’s staff writer Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (the singer/songwriter’s father) writes: ”The heart. Before, when it wore out, that was the end. Death. But just in the past month, a new operation–taking a healthy heart from a newly dead person and planting it in a person whose heart was failing–has stirred the world. It is a wondrous beginning, but in that beginning failure is almost certain.”