Brian Barratt-Boyes achieved fame in 1958 when he performed New Zealand's first open-heart surgery at Green Lane Hospital, Auckland. He assembled a team that was at the forefront of heart surgery and pioneered new surgical techniques involving the replacement of defective heart valves.
Born in Wellington, Barratt-Boyes went to Johnsonville Primary School before attending Wellington College. He went on to Victoria University before studying medicine at Otago University's Medical School, graduating in 1946. He continued his training as a surgeon in New Zealand and then the United States, spending two years at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In 1957 he returned to New Zealand, having been recruited to Green Lane Hospital by Sir Douglas Robb, New Zealand's pioneer of heart surgery and Chancellor of Auckland University. Despite many lucrative offers from hospitals and universities around the world, Barratt-Boyes remained at Green Lane until his retirement in 1988.
In 1958 Barratt-Boyes performed New Zealand's first cardiopulmonary bypass using an imported Melrose Heart-Lung machine. This machine had been developed at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, London, in the early 1950s. Barratt-Boyes convinced the Hospital Board to spend the £3,000 needed to purchase the machine. But when it arrived at Green Lane it needed significant alterations and a number of parts were missing. Kiwi ingenuity stepped in. Alfred Melville of the Auckland Industrial Development Laboratory manufactured the necessary parts. In 1961 he further demonstrated an ability to overcome technical problems when he became one of the first surgeons in the world to implant pacemakers before they were commercially available. They were manufactured in the Auckland University workshop. In 1962 he became only the second heart surgeon in the world to replace a heart valve.
He was knighted in 1971 and received numerous other awards and honorary titles. His textbook Cardiac Surgery (1986), co-written with John Kirklin, was for some years the standard text on the subject.
Barratt-Boyes was a hard taskmaster. Some described him as aggressive and autocratic, but he inspired loyalty in his teams and earned the undying gratitude of his patients. He was an outspoken and consistent critic of government for what he saw as a lack of funding in treating New Zealanders with heart disease.
It is perhaps his own battle with heart disease that made him empathise so strongly with his patients. He initially kept his condition a secret, but in 1974 a Green Lane colleague performed a coronary artery bypass on him. He underwent three further heart operations in his lifetime. Barratt-Boyes died on 8 March 2006 from complications following a heart operation performed two weeks before.
- Obituary: NZ Medical Journal
- See also: biography of Brian Barratt-Boyes in Te Ara Biographies