Story: Barratt-Boyes, Brian Gerald

Page 2: Open-heart surgery

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Barratt-Boyes, Brian Gerald


Doctor, cardiac surgeon

This biography, written by Jill Wrapson,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2011.

Green Lane Hospital

Douglas Robb, surgeon-in-charge at Auckland’s Green Lane Hospital, recruited Brian Barratt-Boyes back to New Zealand as senior cardiothoracic surgeon in 1957, to set up open-heart surgery. By this time Green Lane had been designated the sole cardiac surgical centre in New Zealand. Barratt-Boyes remained at Green Lane for the rest of his career, despite numerous offers from overseas, taking on the mantle of surgeon-in-charge when Robb retired in 1964.

Experimental work

At Green Lane, Barratt-Boyes’ considerable experimental work in the surgical laboratory made cardio-pulmonary surgery on a stationary heart possible for the first time in New Zealand, using a bypass machine. In 1957 a Melrose heart-lung machine had been imported from Britain at a cost of £3,000, paid for by the Auckland Hospital Board after urging by Barratt-Boyes. When the machine arrived at Green Lane it was missing a number of parts. With the ingenuity of Sid Yarrow, a Green Lane laboratory technician, and the skill of Alfred Melville of the Auckland Industrial Development Laboratory, the necessary parts were manufactured and modified, overcoming technical problems experienced during testing.

Surgical firsts

Barratt-Boyes’s first ‘hole-in-the-heart’, or ventricular septal defect, operation was on 10-year-old Helen Arnold, on 3 September 1958. So-called ‘blue babies’ – children with congenital heart defects – were given the chance of living normal, healthy lives as the result of this surgery.

Resourcefulness also played a large part in the construction of an external pacemaker, built by Yarrow at Barratt-Boyes’s request, to enable the heart to be re-started after bypass surgery. The first permanent pacemaker in New Zealand was implanted in 1961.

Homograft surgery

Barratt-Boyes continued his ground-breaking work in heart surgery by pioneering homograft (human donor) heart-valve replacements in New Zealand in 1962, virtually simultaneously with (but independently of) London surgeon Donald Ross. Barratt-Boyes had overcome the problems inherent in inserting heart valves, after inspiration gained while taking a bath one day. His continued experimentation with homograft, rather than artificial valves, which were prone to problems, led to his long-term international achievement in this field.

Barratt-Boyes’s first homograft operation was on Marilyn Hollingsworth, who many years later remembered him as having a ‘very quiet, unassuming personality with a lot of dignity’.1 His patients were not limited to New Zealand, his success also attracting people from all walks of life from overseas. One patient, Gordon McShean, wrote a book, Operation New Zealand: my search for a new heart, about his homograft valve replacement by Barratt-Boyes.

Surgery on babies

In 1969 Barratt-Boyes furthered Green Lane’s status, this time as an international centre for newborn babies with congenital heart disease. By using the technique of deep hypothermia, originally introduced in Japan but perfected by Barratt-Boyes, he was able to perform open-heart surgery on neonates. Prior to this, only palliative operations had been performed on small babies, in the hope of keeping them alive until they were able to withstand major surgery.

  1. Quoted in Donna Chisholm, From the heart: a biography of Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1987, p. 100. Back
How to cite this page:

Jill Wrapson. 'Barratt-Boyes, Brian Gerald - Open-heart surgery', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2011. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2020)