British Heart Foundation celebrates 60 years of pioneering work

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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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
  • 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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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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