The legacy of the late Dr Victor Chang

The Late Dr Victor Chang: Remembering his legacy

Victor Chang was one of Australia’s great citizens. A charming yet deeply private person, he became known world-wide as leading heart surgeon and heart transplant pioneer, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. In this retrospective, The Asian  Executive takes this opportunity to reflect on a life of medical triumphs and personal tragedy for his family and Australia.

A visionary and great leader, he established the National Heart Transplant Programme at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney making it the most successful heart transplant unit in the world.

The life of this national hero was cruelly cut short when he was murdered on the 4th of July 1991 at the pinnacle of his career.

Victor Peter Chang was born in Shanghai to Australian born Chinese parents, spending his early childhood in Hong Kong. After losing his mother to breast cancer at the age of 12, the young Chang vowed to become a doctor and dedicate his life to healing the sick. Moving to Australia in 1951 with his younger sister, he completed his secondary schooling at the Christian Brothers College in New South Wales before studying at the University of Sydney, where the gifted young man graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Science with First-Class Honours and a Bachelor of Surgery in 1962. After completing his medical education, Chang began his internship at St Vincent’s hospital under the direction of cardiac surgeon Dr Mark Shanahan. From here, Chang was sent to London to train with British surgeon Dr Aubrey York Mason, regarded at the time as one of the world’s finest general surgeons. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1966, training in cardiothoracic surgery at the Royal Brompton hospital in London. Chang started working as an on-call emergency physician at St. Anthony’s Hospital in North Cheam where he met his wife, Ann Simmons. The two married soon afterwards and had 3 children; Vanessa, Matthew and Marcus.

Dr Victor Chang
Dr Chang was a gifted surgeon with a strong eye for innovation and invention.

In December 1970 Chang took his family to the United States where he became chief resident at the Mayo Clinic. In 1972 he returned to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney as a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon, joining the prestigious cardiothoracic team under Dr Harry Windsor who had performed Australia’s first heart transplant in 1968. In his memoirs, The Heart of a Surgeon, Windsor describes his first impressions of Chang:

“From the outset his intelligence, dexterity and confidence were apparent…Victor revealed himself as a genial, open person, with a tendency to think aloud and bare his soul.”

Chang was soon well known amongst both colleagues and patients for his compassion, and even though he was not a religious man himself he would often ask Sister Bernice, a stalwart of St Vincent’s, to pray for the recovery of his patients.

He was appointed Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1973 and Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1975.

It was at St Vincent’s that Victor Chang created the National Cardiac Transplant Unit, that was to become Australia’s leading centre for heart and lung transplants.

In 1980, following the availability of an anti-rejection drug that made heart transplants more viable, Dr Chang pressed the Australian government to fund a cardiac transplant program at St. Vincent Hospital. Determined and relentless, he lobbied both government and businessmen to raise funds to part finance a national heart transplant program in 1983.Undeterred by an announcement that the national cardiac transplant unit was to be based at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he proved that St Vincent’s had raised enough money to establish their own cardiac transplant programme, and the initial decision was soon reversed in favour of St Vincent’s.

This move allowed St. Vincent Hospital in Sydney to become Australia’s primary centre dedicated to heart transplants. Under his leadership, Chang formed an outstanding team of over 40 top health professionals, becoming world leaders in their field of expertise.

Although Chang was a quiet man, he was outspoken and persistent in the pursuit of pushing the boundaries of his specialised field.

“When no one else was putting their hand up, he was saying, ‘Yes, we want to do heart transplants’, stated Dr Phillip Spratt, director of heart and lung surgery and transplantation at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.

Victor Chang was a visionary and realised that operating on people was not sufficient. A heart transplant requires the life of one human for another to live and there was always a shortage of donors. It was with this in mind inspired Chang to design and develop an artificial heart.

He arranged the finances and pulled together a team of scientists and engineers to create an artificial heart and to produce affordable heart valves. Chang and his team made significant progress on the design of an artificial heart, which unfortunately ended after his death.

It was on 23rd February 1984 that Victor Chang first successfully transplanted a heart on Peter Apthorpe the 39 year-old shearer from Armidale. History was made a few weeks later on 8th April when Australian medical history was repeated when 14-year old Fiona Coote became Australia’s second successful heart transplant patient.

It was these successes and the new procedures and techniques used by Dr Chang that made him a world-wide leading figure in the field of heart surgery. Unfortunately Peter Apthorpe died a few months after his operation; however the second transplant for Fiona Coote proved a great success. After an initial setback where she rejected the first heart, Fiona endured a second transplant in 1986 and 35 years later is alive and well as a result of Dr Chang and his team at St. Vincent’s. In 2011 at a celebration of 25 years of her transplant Ms Coote stated, “If it weren’t for medical research and the wonderful work of Dr Victor Chang, I wouldn’t be standing here today.” She also remembers him fondly “He was fun, cheeky, charming. He loved life. He was someone who inspired confidence in all.”

During the period 1984 – 1990, up to his untimely death, Dr Chang’s team performed over 197 heart transplants and 14 heart and lung transplants, with a high success rate of 90% of transplant patients surviving the initial12 month period.A lesser known aspect of his work was the work he and his team did in China and Indonesia where skills in this area of medicine were badly needed. As well as travelling with teams to Asia, doctors from South East Asia were sponsored to come to Australia in order for them to train and take their learnings back to their home countries. One of the other results of this program was the promotion of a positive cultural exchange between Australia and South East Asia.

For his outstanding achievements in the field of heart surgery and transplants, Victor Chang was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in 1986 in recognition of service to international relations between Australia and China and to medical science.

The 4th July 1991 was a black day for Australia when Dr Victor Peter Chang was murdered in a bungled and amateur extortion attempt.

Victor Chang was cremated and his ashes were buried beneath a memorial plaque at Green Park, near St Vincent’s Hospital.

In 1984 Dr Chang established the Victor Chang Foundation that continues his work to this day. CEO, Vanessa Chang said “dad would have been delighted

that his Foundation is still pursuing its original aims: granting funds to promote, educate, train, upgrade and share skills between Australian and Asian medical and health practitioners in the areas of cardiothoracic surgery, heart and lung transplantation and cardiology. As well as facilitate innovation in these fields with a focus on heart transplantation, artificial hearts and artificial valves in order to prolong the life of those with heart disease.

Additionally, in the wake of his death and in the pursuit of furthering research into heart disease, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute was established on November 23rd 1993. Over $8 million was raised following generous donations from the government, private donors and the public. The Institute was launched by the Australian Prime Minister on 15th February 1994 to focus on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart muscle diseases.

Dr Chang’s legacy is as strong as ever today. Professor Graham from the Victor Chang Institute stated, “It’s important that we as Australians remember what he stood for, that is, a pioneer, and a people person, dedicated to improving the lives of all Australians.”

Researchers in the Institute have since developed a ‘heart-in-a-box’ device that revives dead hearts ready for transplantation.

Professor John Hickie, chairman of the Heart and Lung Institute at St Vincent’s remembers Chang as, “An outstanding surgeon and an outstanding thinker, a very original thinker.”

Victor Chang said, “Whatever you give, if you give it freely and without conditions it’ll come back to you two fold”. The contribution Dr Victor Peter Chang gave to humanity in his short life was immense. Whilst Victor Chang saved hundreds of lives through his pioneering surgery and procedures. His memory and legacy remains through the Foundation that Dr Chang established as
well as the research institute named after him.

If you would like to make a donation towards the Victor Chang Foundation, please go to this website:

The Asian Executive wishes to thank the Chang family for their peer review and consent to the release of this article. The Asian Executive also wishes to thank the Chang family for reproduction of all the images which appear in this article sourced from their private collection.

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