Explore the remarkable life and legacy of Victor Chang, a trailblazing heart surgeon whose groundbreaking contributions revolutionized the field of cardiac medicine. From his early years to transformative surgical innovations, discover the inspiring journey of a man dedicated to saving lives and advancing the frontier of cardiovascular healthcare.
Dr. Victor Peter Chang, was a Chinese-born Australian cardiac surgeon renowned for pioneering modern heart transplantation in Australia. His tragic murder in 1991 was a significant event in Australia’s history, leading to a state funeral and posthumous recognition, including being voted Australian of the Century at the People’s Choice Awards in 1999.
Chang completed his medical studies at the University of Sydney and worked at St Vincent’s Hospital. He further trained in the United Kingdom and the United States, honing his surgical skills before returning to Australia. At St Vincent’s Hospital, he played a crucial role in establishing the National Cardiac Transplant Unit, a leading center for heart and lung transplants in the country. His team achieved a high success rate in heart transplantations, and he was instrumental in developing an artificial heart valve.
In 1986, Chang was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, recognizing his contributions to medical science and international relations between Australia and China.
Tragically, Chang’s life was cut short in 1991 when he was murdered in a failed extortion attempt by two young men. His legacy endures through the Victor Chang Foundation he established, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute formed after his death, and the Victor Chang Lowy Packer Building at St Vincent’s Hospital.
Life and Medical Career
Victor Chang was born in Shanghai to Australian-born Chinese parents who held British citizenship. He spent his childhood in Hong Kong, attending a primary school in Kowloon Tong and later St. Paul’s College for two years. In 1951, following his mother’s passing from breast cancer when he was just 12, a moment that profoundly influenced his future career path, Chang and his younger sister moved to Sydney to live with extended family. There, he attended Belmore Boys’ High School in Belmore and completed his secondary education at Christian Brothers’ High School in Lewisham.
Chang’s early exposure to the impacts of serious illness on a family influenced his decision to pursue a career in medicine. He embarked on this path at the University of Sydney, where he excelled academically, earning a Bachelor of Medical Science with First-Class Honours and a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery in 1962. Chang’s journey from a grieving son to a distinguished medical professional was marked by determination and a deep commitment to advancing medical science.
Victor Chang began his medical career with an internship at St Vincent’s Hospital, under the guidance of cardiac surgeon Mark Shanahan. Recognizing his potential, Shanahan recommended Chang for further training in London with renowned British surgeon Aubrey York Mason.
In 1966, Chang achieved the prestigious status of Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and specialized in cardiothoracic surgery at the Royal Brompton Hospital. It was during his time in London that he met and married Ann Simmons. His quest for excellence then led him to the United States, where he spent two years at the Mayo Clinic, ultimately becoming the chief resident. In 1972, Chang returned to St Vincent’s Hospital as a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon. He was appointed Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1973 and Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1975.
Chang’s career in cardiothoracic surgery flourished at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he collaborated with surgeon Harry Windsor, notable for performing Australia’s first heart transplant in 1968. With the introduction of anti-rejection drugs in 1980, heart transplants became more viable. Chang was instrumental in raising funds to establish a heart transplant program at the hospital. On 8 April 1984, he led a team that operated on 14-year-old Fiona Coote, making her Australia’s youngest heart transplant recipient.
From 1984 to 1990, Chang’s unit performed over 197 heart transplants and 14 heart-lung transplants, boasting a remarkable 90% survival rate beyond the first year for transplant recipients. In 1986, he was honored as a Companion of the Order of Australia for his significant contributions to medical science and fostering international relations between Australia and China.
Chang also addressed the critical issue of organ donor shortages. He led a team comprising scientists, engineers, and a marketing specialist to develop an artificial heart and manufacture affordable heart valves. In 1980, he collaborated with Frank Tamru of Shiley Laboratories in Singapore, along with engineers Richard Martin and Brij Gupta. They founded Pacific Biomedical Enterprises Ltd., headquartered in Singapore, with facilities in Guangzhou and Sydney to develop the St. Vincent’s Heart Valves. These valves became widely used throughout Asia, showcasing Chang’s dedication to improving cardiac health on a global scale.
On the fateful morning of 4 July 1991, Dr. Victor Chang’s life was tragically cut short in a shocking and senseless act of violence. He was fatally shot twice in the head during a botched extortion attempt. His body was discovered next to his Mercedes-Benz 500SL in a gutter in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, a grim and unexpected end for such a distinguished figure.
The perpetrators of this heinous crime were two Malaysian men, Chew Seng (Ah Sung) Liew and Choon Tee (Phillip) Lim. They had randomly selected Chang as their target from a magazine that featured successful Asians in Australia. Their plan took a fatal turn when they intentionally collided their Toyota Corona with Chang’s vehicle, forcing him to stop. A confrontation ensued when Chang, understandably, refused to comply with their demands for money. In the heat of the argument, Liew fired the deadly shots. The first bullet struck Chang near the right cheek and exited below his right ear. The fatal second shot, fired at point-blank range, entered his right temple and traversed through his brain.
Initially, police investigators speculated the involvement of Triad syndicates in this crime. However, it was later concluded that the murder was not a calculated act by organized crime but rather a desperate and amateurish attempt at extortion. This tragic event not only claimed the life of a brilliant surgeon but also sent shockwaves throughout Australia, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s collective memory.
In 1984, Dr. Victor Chang established the Victor Chang Foundation, a testament to his dedication to advancing education and innovation in cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. His vision for the foundation continues to thrive under the stewardship of his daughter, Vanessa Chang.
The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, focused on heart muscle disease research, including its prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, was inaugurated on 15 February 1994. This significant initiative was launched by Prime Minister Paul Keating, with media mogul Kerry Packer as its patron. Additionally, the “Dr Victor Chang Science Labs” at Christian Brothers’ High School are a tribute to his legacy.
In a significant public acknowledgment, Prime Minister John Howard announced Chang as the Australian of the Century at the 1999 People’s Choice Awards. This honor placed him among other notable Australians, including swimmer Dawn Fraser, cricketer Donald Bradman, and ophthalmologist Fred Hollows.
The Victor Chang Lowy Packer Building at St Vincent’s Hospital, a substantial development completed in 2008, was made possible through a combination of state funding and private donations. It was officially opened by Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, who highlighted Chang’s innovative thinking, his contributions to heart assist device development, and his compassionate care for patients and their families.
Time magazine recognized Chang’s profound impact in its “A Golden Anniversary” article, citing him as a key figure in the South Pacific for the decade of 1979–1989. His influence extended beyond his lifetime, shaping the region’s history over the last half-century.
In 2017, Sydney Ferries honored Chang by naming one of their Emerald-class ferries after him, further cementing his legacy in the public consciousness.