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Leonard Bailey, surgeon who stoked moral dilemma with baboon-to-human heart transplant, dies at 76

Steve Marble, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Leonard Bailey, a surgeon who opened new doors in medicine when he transplanted a baboon heart into an infant girl but then endured withering criticism for harvesting an organ from an animal to help save the life of a human, has died after a yearslong fight with cancer. He was 76.

Bailey's decision to transplant the baboon's walnut-size heart into a 12-day-old infant known only as "Baby Fae" drew international attention and -- to some in the medical community -- offered a future where there would always be an unlimited supply of animal organs to help save the lives of human patients.

But the moral and ethical questions of using animals as a virtual supermarket for hearts, livers and kidneys were so weighty that cross-species transplants failed to become the norm.

For Bailey, of Loma Linda, Calif., the 1984 surgery established him as a leading authority on heart transplants, a small-town doctor suddenly known internationally as a skilled and daring surgeon. But it all came at a price.

Criticized sharply by animal rights activists who found the surgery to be ghoulish, Bailey was heckled when he spoke publicly. In 1985, Loma Linda officials suggested that he wear a bulletproof vest when he delivered a talk on the ethics of the Baby Fae operation. He canceled his appearance instead.

Even Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the, South Africa surgeon who rewrote the medical rule book with the world's first heart transplant, wondered whether the Baby Fae transplant had gone too far.

 

"I used a baboon once, and then a chimpanzee and it was a traumatic emotional experience," he said in a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I am not in favor of using the higher forms like the chimpanzee. Not the apes, they are pretty human, and the bigger ones are already in danger of becoming extinct."

Bailey was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and chose to make his condition public, often seeming more curious than worried as it slowly advanced from his tongue to the rest of his body. He died May 12.

Baby Fae weighed all of 4.6 pounds when doctors determined she would likely die from hypoplastic left heart syndrome -- a congenital heart defect that defied reconstructive surgery.

Because there were no infant human hearts immediately available, Bailey decided on a radical course -- take the heart of a primate, in this case a baboon named Goobers. Though the child died 21 days later, the surgery was seen as a pioneering step in medicine and infant-to-infant heart transplants became an accepted procedure.

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