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Timeline: Heart in History

10,000-8,000 B.C.E.-1850 | 1882-1998  


Simplacio Del Vecchio exhibits a dog with a sutured cardiac wound before the 11th International Medical Congress in Rome. Del Vecchio shows the Congress how the suturing is possible and proves that the heart is more resilient than previously believed.


"A surgeon who tries to suture a heart wound deserves to lose the esteem of his colleagues," states leading German surgeon Theodor Billroth.


Various surgeons attempt heart operations. Physicians such as Henry Dalton and Daniel Hale Williams successfully suture cardiac wounds, and though there is a 90% mortality rate throughout the period, innovators see these and other successful operations as hope for the future. The majority of the medical community disagrees.


"Surgery of the heart has probably reached the limits set by Nature to all surgery. No method, no new discovery, can overcome the natural difficulties that attend a wound of the heart," believes English surgeon Stephen Paget.


In an address to the American Surgical Association, Alexis Carrel discusses the innovative idea of shunt procedures between chambers of the heart. His experiments with animals are the precursor to the bypass operations of modern surgery, including the Blalock-Taussig shunt.


Dr. Henry Soutter saves the life of a young girl with a successful heart operation. However, the medical community ridicules the procedure. Soutter is never able to repeat the operation.


August 28: Dr. Robert Gross performs the first major operation on the vessels near the heart in an attempt to repair a defect in a young girl's pulmonary artery. This is the first operation of its kind, and it causes a sensation in the newspapers. Doctors around the world take notice. The era of modern cardiac surgery has begun.


November 29: Alfred Blalock, Helen Taussig, and Vivien Thomas work together to save "blue babies," children with a fatal heart defect. The operation causes a sensation, and announces to the world that heart surgery has arrived as a viable option, not just a rare last resort. After the blue baby operation, the practice of cardiac surgery spreads like wildfire.


The leap in modern medicine owes much to World War II. Doctors are forced to adapt and improve their methods under wartime conditions, and pioneer improvements in anesthesia, antibiotics, and blood transfusions. Several surgeons, such as Dwight Harken, attempt to operate on heart wounds, sometimes even successfully. These advances help pave the road towards modern cardiac surgery.


The publicity about heart disease is as prominent as that of AIDS today. Heart disease is revealed as the number one killer in the country, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower repeatedly speak out in favor of fundraising, February is named National Heart Month, and the American Heart Association is formed, all within a few years.


Dr. Bill Bigelow experiments with lowering the patient's body temperature, thus slowing down all the vital organs. This provides a way for surgeons to get into the heart without the patient bleeding to death. A surgeon may have as long as ten minutes to operate before the patient begins to suffer from oxygen deprivation, whereas previously, the surgeon would have been lucky to have four minutes.


September 2: At the University of Minneapolis Hospital, Dr. John Lewis, assisted by Dr. Walter Lillehei, performs the first successful open heart surgery. Using the hypothermic, lowered-body-temperature approach, they suture a hole in the heart of Jacqueline Johnson.

Late 1950s

Doctors rush to develop a heart-lung machine, which will take over the vital functions of the body, hence allowing a surgeon an unlimited amount of time to operate. The first successful machine, built by John Gibbon in 1953, is bulky and unwieldy. Improvements continue to appear consistently after the 1950s.

1950s and 1960s

Cardiac surgeons become the celebrities of the field. Several, such as Walter Lillehei and Henry Bahnson, live up to the "work hard and play hard" mentality. Denton Cooley becomes a legend in Texas before he is 35. Christiaan Barnard is seen dating such beautiful women as Sophia Loren.


December 3: In Cape Town, South Africa, Christiaan Barnard removes the healthy heart of a dead woman and transplants it into the chest of 55-year old man. The operation makes newspapers' front pages around the world, making a star out of Barnard.


Pre-1970, the majority of heart transplants end in disaster because the patient's bodies reject the new organ. Thanks largely to the work of Dr. Norman Shumway, surgeons learn to minimize transplant rejection. A procedure is developed to monitor the process of heart rejection. A new drug, cyclosporin, prevents organ rejection without damaging the immune system. Soon, the only problem with heart transplants is that there are not enough donor hearts.


Michael DeBakey implants a battery-powered heart. Though experiments had been performed since the mid-1950s and the nation watched several successes in the 80s, only DeBakey's success leads the world to think that artificial hearts are the way of the future.

10,000-8,000 B.C.E.-1850 | 1882-1998  

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