While most Americans frantically pursued the good things of life in the weeks preceding Christmas, scientists and doctors made headlines by preserving life and unlocking its most elusive secrets.

In South Africa’s Groote Schuur Hospital, where a surgical team headed by Dr. Christian N. Barnard had been anticipating the breakthrough for weeks, surgeons performed the first transplant of a human heart in history. In an operation lasting nearly five hours, the heart of Miss Denise Darvall, an accident victim, was implanted in the chest of grocer Louis Washkansky, 55-year-old victim of progressive heart failure. But eighteen days later Washkansky died, and a study of the causes was begun.

In Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center a similar operation was performed three days later on a 19-day-old boy, who died inexplicably after only 6½ hours. As an interesting sidelight to the story, journalists learned that the donor of the heart, an arencephalic child who lived only a few days, was the grandchild of Carl McIntire, well-known radio preacher. (McIntire commented perceptively on the theological implications of the transplant: “The fundamental Christian glories in all modern scientific advances,” for these unfold “the design and the wisdom of the Creator.”)

Exciting as these developments were, the best was yet to come. The same week brought news that scientists in Palo Alto, California, had manufactured from inert laboratory chemicals the active, inner core of a virus. Since the virus material DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was able to perform as a virus—reproducing itself by invading living cells and altering their normal functions to produce viruses—scientists rightly hailed the experiment as the creation of a “primitive form of life.” ...

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