Book Review: Defining Moments by Dr Marius Barnard

I was ten years old when I learned my first bit of medical history: the first heart transplant, which was performed in South Africa by Dr Christiaan Barnard. We were not told that his little brother played a role in this world-changing surgery as well.

A year later, Dr C. Barnard died unexpectedly. I was just eleven, and could not possibly understand everything that came to light in the media frenzy, but I did learn that he had been a ladies’ man and a difficult character. Again, I never heard anything about his little brother.

In light of this it is probably not surprising that Marius Barnard felt the need to chronicle his own life – and perhaps not surprising that a thread of bitterness was woven into the narrative.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this Dr Barnard’s life. He grew up, like his brother, in a small town called Beaufort West. His upbringing was humble, and his father was a missionary. I enjoyed reading about his medical school years – and I liked that he never mentioned particular academic prowess. (There must be hope for me.)

Dr Barnard went to Romania at a time when the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, but he went regardless, in order to train surgeons there in his techniques. I think he saved a great many lives in this manner and this (long) chapter was probably my favourite part of the book.

heartquoteHe went on to become a Member of Parliament and pioneered the concept of Critical Illness Insurance, first in South Africa and then in much of the world. He admits that he does not think he made a big difference as an MP, but that really is open to the interpretation of the reader. I definitely appreciate his non-racial beliefs and the kindness he displays.

There was a fair amount I did not like of this book. As mentioned before, there seemed to be some bitterness seeping through (although one can’t exactly blame him for it). I felt that there was a fair amount of naming-and-shaming going on here. The phrase “I did not really like so-and-so” was common. People’s faults were laid bare. Sometimes it was incredibly funny, but sometimes it was just in bad taste.

Divided into five sections – namely Heritage, Medicine, Politics, Critical Illness Insurance and Matters of the Heart – the narrative at times seemed disjointed. I am sure that this is a matter of personal preference and that Barnard and his team discussed the benefits of this ad nauseum, but I feel that the WHOLE Dr Barnard would have been easier understood if the book was more chronological. The other problem is that I have virtually no interest in insurance matters, so about 80 pages were very boring to me.

Despite this, I enjoyed getting to know this country-boy who rocketed to fame. His autobiography may be unapologetic to a fault, but the writing is also incredibly genuine. Not beautiful, but raw and genuine.

Another benefit was that my general perception of surgeons was challenged. Readers of this blog will know that I have been critical of surgeons (not because of their skills, but because of their attitudes). I am learning to have fewer preconceived notions of individuals in different medical disciplines.

Not for everyone, but certainly a good read for those interested in history, medicine or politics, this book probably gets less credit than is due.


  1. beckireads says:

    It sounds like a really interesting book, though biography isn’t really my cup of tea.

    1. I struggle with biographies too! They always take forEVER to read. Probably the only “biography” that was ever quick to read for me was The Diary of a Young Girl.

  2. Johannes Marais says:

    I recently won a prize for 600 rand to be spent on books. And I’ve run out of ideas after the first 200, what books would you buy if you were suddenly given this?

    1. Now that is a tough question. If you’re wanting to buy books related to the medical field, I would suggest any of the following:
      The Emperor of all Maladies
      The brain that changes itself
      The karma suture
      28: Stories of AIDS in Africa
      (I have reviews for all of them on this blog if you’re interested)

      If you’re looking for something less medical, let me know what kind of books you like and I’ll have a think!

      1. Johannes Marais says:

        Hey thanks, but since I’ve been reading your blog for a while now I have already read The Emperor of All Maladies & 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa and like you loved them!

        But I’ll definitely check out the Karma Suture and the Brain that Changes Itself thanks.

        It’s a prize that my school gives to people going to med school next year so I think they want you to buy medical books, but not necessarily textbooks.

      2. Sounds like a great prize! You could also try the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I haven’t read it, but it is supposed to be excellent.

  3. tight shoes says:

    One of the reasons why I enjoy reading your blog, is that you always manage to bring interesting reads to our attention. This is another that I’ll be adding to my list.

    1. Why thank you! I can’t promise that it will be a gripping read that you will speed through in a day (it is a biography, after all), but I think with your passion for medicine, you will find it to be worth it to an extent.

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