Skip to main contentSkip to footer
three students intently listening to lecturer
Brighton & Sussex Medical School

Ethics in Performance - 2011/12 series

BSMS > Research > Clinical and experimental medicine > Biomedical ethics > Ethics in Performance > The Modern Heart and Narratives of Transplant Surgery

The Modern Heart & Narratives of Transplant Surgery

Leonardo da Vinci sketches of a heartThe Modern Heart & Narratives of Transplant Surgery

30 May 2012

Chowen Lecture Theatre, BSMS Teaching Building


A lecture investigating the meanings that the heart both lost and gained in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of heart transplant surgery.

Dr Ashlee Neser, is a researcher and lecturer at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), an interdisciplinary Humanities unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dr Neser examined several narratives of heart transplant, including the little-known but intriguing accounts by Dr Christiaan Barnard, first doctor to perform human heart transplant surgery (Cape Town, 1967), and Philip Blaiberg, South Africa's second recipient of a heart transplant. The paper uncovered what was then, and what seems now to be at stake for the imagination in the act of replacing a worn out heart with the viable heart of another.

Within weeks of Dr Christiaan Barnard's world-first success in the field of human heart transplantation in Cape Town in December 1967, commentators around the world were writing with deep concern about what they saw as a catastrophic literalization of the organ so long understood as the location of the self, the soul, of courage and inspiration. It is difficult for us to imagine backwards into that watershed moment in surgical modernity, and to understand the dismay and panic at the heart of such complaints about the symbolic order. It is perhaps also difficult for us to imagine the controversy that raged around so many related issues – including about how the act of replacing one's heart with that of another might affect one's identity, one's race, one's gender, one's sense of one's age.



Ashlee Neser is a researcher and lecturer at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. WISER is an interdisciplinary Humanities unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Ashlee's research is in the area of the Medical Humanities, and she is presently absorbed in a project on surgeon writers.

Previously, Ashlee worked on performance poetry and is the author of a book entitled 'Stranger at Home: The Praise Poet in Apartheid South Africa'. The subject of her book, a rural African poet, suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, and Ashlee's thinking about this poet's experience of his debilitating disease and its effects on his capacity to perform motivated her move into her present area of research.

Ashlee has written articles and given seminars on illness memoirs; the temporalities of illness and dying; and accounts of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. She is currently working towards a book on South African medical modernity and the writings of South African surgeons.