Lives of the fellows

Bennie George Shapiro

b.26 September 1911 d.? October 2010
MA Cape Town(1932) DPhil(1935) MB ChB(1936) MRCP(1940) FRCP(1975)

Bennie George Shapiro was a physician at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH), Cape Town. His patient, Louis Washkansky, was the first person to have a heart transplant, after being operated upon by Christiaan Barnard.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, he was the son of Solomon Shapiro and his wife, Lena. His father (who died when Bennie was twelve) was one of the driving forces in the founding of the Dorshei Zion Movement, spending the latter years of his life building a literature collection for the community and giving lectures. After attending South African College School (SACS), he studied medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and GSH.

After qualifying in 1936, he received the prestigious British Empire Royal Commission Research Scholarship which was awarded for the best science research in South Africa. He used it to continue his work in endocrinology in the UK, spending two years at Guy’s Hospital.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to South Africa and joined the South African Army Medical Corps, serving as a major in various military hospitals across South Africa, Egypt and Italy. On demobilisation in 1946, he started a flourishing private practice and combined being a part-time physician at GSH with a post of part-time lecturer, and later senior lecturer, in the departments of medicine and physiology at UCT.

In 1967 he refused to accept the judgement of the head of the cardiac clinic that one of his patients could not be saved – instead he contacted the surgeon, Christiaan Barnard. The patient became the recipient of the world’s first transplanted heart and, although he only lived for 18 days, the operation provided a successful blueprint for what is now almost a routine operation.

In his youth he had been keen on soccer and represented the UCT at boxing and hockey. Retiring from practice at the age of 80, he had some productive years studying the stock market and reading books relating to politics. In his late 90s he became more dependent on others but was still sentient and articulate, responding to the paramedics who wanted to take his blood pressure after fracturing his hip ‘To hell with the blood pressure – get me an orthopaedic surgeon’.

He was divorced from his first wife and married again. When he died, three weeks after celebrating his 99th birthday, he was survived by his son, Tony, and grandsons, Mark and Stuart.

RCP editor

[South African College School accessed 19 August 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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