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60 years of the British Heart Foundation’s pioneering work

·6-min read

The British Heart Foundation, one of the UK’s best known charities, celebrates its 60th birthday on Wednesday.

Founded in 1961 when 70% of heart attacks were fatal, the BHF has spent decades funding the brightest minds to make medical breakthroughs – including the country’s first heart transplant.

Now, thanks to its pioneering work, at least 70% of people who have heart attacks survive, while most born with congenital diseases go on to live healthy lives.

With the nation emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, the BHF is calling on people to support them in paying for the next 60 years of vital research, so cures and treatments can be found for the 7.6 million people still living with heart and circulatory diseases.

Here is a list of the charity’s milestones:

– 1961: The British Heart Foundation is founded

Patron of the British Heart Foundation, the Duke of Edinburgh in the grounds of Buckingham Palace cutting a heart-shaped cake to give a royal send-off to Heart Week '85 (PA/PA Archive)
Patron of the British Heart Foundation the Duke of Edinburgh in the grounds of Buckingham Palace cutting a heart-shaped cake to give a royal send-off to Heart Week ’85 (PA)

With cardiovascular disease causing more than half of all deaths in the UK, concerned doctors joined forces with philanthropists to establish the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Together they set out to answer some of the biggest mysteries of heart disease, such as what causes heart attacks. The Duke of Edinburgh was invited to become the charity’s patron in the early 1960s by Sir Horace Evans, head of the Queen’s Medical Household.

– 1963: Pacemaker pioneer

Aubrey Leatham - pacemaker pioneer - with Queen Elizabeth
Aubrey Leatham, pacemaker pioneer, with the Queen (PA)

Dr Aubrey Leatham, who implanted the UK’s first internal pacemaker in 1961, was funded by the BHF in 1963 to improve the technology, pushing the boundaries towards today’s sophisticated and miniaturised pacemakers.

– 1964: UK’s first coronary care unit

BHF professor who started first coronary care unit in UK
Dr Desmond Julian, who started the first coronary care unit in UK (British Heart Foundation)

Dr Desmond Julian, who pioneered the concept of the coronary care unit, set up the first one in the UK. This specialised hospital ward for intensive care started a global revolution in heart patient care. Today this is standard in all major hospitals.

– 1965: First defibrillator in an ambulance

Dr Frank Pantridge received a BHF grant to use a portable defibrillator in an ambulance for the first time.

– 1968: First UK heart transplant

Frederick West, Britain’s first heart transplant patient
Frederick West, Britain’s first heart transplant patient (PA)

The first UK heart transplant was performed by surgeon Donald Ross on 45-year-old Frederick West after five years of BHF-funded research into transplant surgery techniques. Today, around 200 transplants are carried out every year in the UK.

– 1980s: AF and stroke connection

Atrial fibrillation (AF) was regarded as harmless until the 1980s when it was realised to be a major cause of strokes. Early work by BHF Professor John Camm at St George’s University London in the 1990s showed the relative importance of heart rate and rhythm control in different patient populations, especially in people with AF.

– 1986: The first BHF shop opens

First BHF shop opened in 1986 in Sittingbourne
The first BHF shop opened in 1986 in Sittingbourne (PA)

The first BHF shop opened in September 1986 in Sittingbourne, and in 2001 the charity’s first furniture shop was opened. Now there are around 540 BHF clothing shops and 190 furniture and electrical stores across all four nations of the UK.

– 1990: Killer genes found

Professor Hugh Watkins is the BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence John Radcliffe Hospital, University of Oxford
Professor Hugh Watkins is the BHF professor of cardiovascular medicine at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence John Radcliffe Hospital, University of Oxford (PA)

The discovery of faulty genes in some families that cause the potentially fatal condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy led Drs Bill McKenna and Hugh Watkins to develop genetic tests to identify those at risk. The Miles Frost Fund programme was launched in 2016 to identify thousands of families unknowingly living with this silent killer.

– 1995: The benefits of statins discovered

Statins (Lauren Hurley/PA)

Two trials, led by BHF Professor Stuart Cobbe and Dr Rory Collins respectively, showed the lifesaving benefit of statins. Now they are used to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in millions of people. In the UK alone, it is estimated they save thousands of lives each year.

– 2004: Anti-smoking campaign

BHF cigarette advert 2004
A BHF cigarette advert in 2004 (BHF/PA)

The Department of Health commissioned the BHF to run a national anti-smoking campaign. Alongside this, the charity lobbied MPs and presented evidence to parliamentary groups that catalysed the movement towards the UK-wide ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces.

– 2004: The first heart failure specialist nurses

First BHF nurses appointed 1996
a BHF nurse (PA)

The British Heart Foundation tested the first heart failure specialist nurse posts, visiting patients in the community and in people’s homes.

– 2010: Familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH)

BHF-funded genetic testing for potentially fatal familial hypercholesterolaemia, which affects one in 250 in the UK, was launched.

– 2011: Zebrafish heart breakthrough

Zebrafish up close in lab being studied for their heart healing qualities
Zebrafish up close in a lab being studied for their heart-healing qualities (PA)

Funds from the BHF Mending Broken Hearts (MBH) Appeal were used to launch three new BHF centres of regenerative medicine. The aim being to advance the discovery by scientists of the zebrafish heart which, unlike the human heart, can completely heal itself after injury. It is hoped one day the research will help millions of people across the world living with heart failure.

– 2012: Vinnie Jones and hands-only CPR

Hands only CPR campaign led by Vinnie Jones in 2012
The hands-only CPR campaign led by Vinnie Jones in 2012 (BHF/PA)

Actor and former professional footballer Vinnie Jones took part in a campaign to help teach the country how to do hands-only CPR: pushing hard and fast on the chest without giving rescue breaths. The campaign aimed to increase bystander intervention in instances of cardiac arrest.

– 2015: Pippa Middleton does charity bike ride

Pippa Middleton rides London to Brighton for BHF in 2015
Pippa Middleton rode from London to Brighton for the BHF in 2015 (BHF/PA)

BHF ambassador Pippa Middleton and her brother James helped celebrate 40 years of the BHF’s London to Brighton Bike Ride by completing the 54-mile challenge along with 22,000 other riders. The following year Ms Middleton released Heartfelt, a heart-healthy cookbook, in collaboration with the BHF.

– 2017: Nationwide testing for deadly inherited heart condition

Miles Frost died of the congenital heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
Miles Frost died of the congenital heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (PA)

The family of Sir David Frost and the BHF launched a nationwide genetic testing service for families at risk of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – an inherited heart condition that killed Sir David’s son, Miles.

– 2019: 3,000 people diagnosed with FH

Three thousand people in England and Scotland received a diagnosis of familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), an inherited condition that significantly increases the risk of premature coronary heart disease.

– 2020: BHF eBay store sells millionth item

Rare Beatle's record fetches almost £10,000
A rare Beatles record fetched almost £10,000 for BHF (PA)

The BHF has been successfully selling on eBay for charity for almost 15 years, with sales to date exceeding £23 million. After setting up on eBay in 2006 from two rooms above a shop in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 2020 it sold its millionth item.

– 2021: BHF stores reopen after lockdown to record sales

BHF shops opening after lockdown 2021
A BHF shop reopens after lockdown in 2021 (PA)

On the first day of reopening after the third lockdown, BHF shops made £1 million in sales, breaking the previous record for a day’s retail trading.

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