A century after the start of the First World War a researcher has established that the first heart operation to be performed on a soldier was carried out at Fort St Elmo in Malta.

The Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday how Norman Briffa, a Maltese consultant cardiac surgeon, established that the event took place after he was given information during a  talk in September 2011 at Sheffield theatre company.

One of his listeners, Sheila Hobson, questioned his assertion that wounded soldiers had not had heart surgery until the Second World War.

She said that her great uncle, Trooper Robert Martin, had undergone and survived major heart surgery during the First World War after being wounded.

Mr Briffa told Mrs Hobson that he “respectfully doubted” her claims but asked her to supply details so that he could investigate.

Sure enough, after extensive inquiries, he managed to unearth documents written at the time that proved that Mrs Hobson’s claims were accurate and, in her words, medical history “will have to be rewritten”.

Meanwhile, Mr Briffa was so touched by his discoveries about Trooper Martin that he has paid his respects to the heart patient he never knew by visiting his overseas grave.

Robert Hugh Martin was shot in the chest during the Salonika Campaign, in what is now Thessalonika, Greece on November 14, 1917 – his 21st birthday. He was transferred to Malta  then known as the Nurse of the Mediterranean.

Treatment was limited at the time and underwent complex heart surgery in early 1918, after medical experts concluded that without such treatment he would die.

Although the operation was successful, Trooper Martin contracted an infection that claimed his life. He died on March 14, 1918, still aged 21.

Mr Briffa said the amazing efforts of the heroic British army surgeons in treating heart injuries were largely forgotten.

“Trooper Martin died only because antibiotics had not yet been invented. Now I feel sure similar efforts took place in other theatres of the Great War and that there were long-term survivors.”

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