On July 3, 1952 at Harper Hospital Detroit, Michigan, the terms life and death were redefined. On that day more than fifty years ago, Dr. Forest Dodrill performed the first successful open heart surgery in the history of the world. Without surgery the patient would die, only with surgery could the patient hope to live.
But why was this, the first in history, why was it so important, why & how was GM involved, and how could this possibly redefine the terms of life and death?
Why, this was the first, is simple. Open heart surgery required that the heart be taken, so to speak, “off line” while it was being operated upon. This meant something else had to fill in for it, specifically something capable of blending and pumping perfectly oxygenated blood throughout the human body. A substitute for the human heart! This had never been done before, if it was even possible outside of fantasy worlds inhabited by the likes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
This fantasy started its journey to reality not with a moon shot or a visit to Mars, but with a meeting late in 1949 between Dr. Dodrill of Harper Hospital and a Mr. Charles Wilson. At this meeting Dr. Dodrill showed Mr. Wilson a number of conceptual sketches for a very special pump, a human heart pump. Mr. Wilson was uniquely positioned to make this dream into a reality. He was both the President of General Motors and Chairman of the Board for the Michigan Heart Association. GM would build it and it would be primarily financed by the Michigan Heart Association along with donations from GM. This was not a Michigan Connection, but a Michigan Project from conception thru construction and financing.
- Presenting the heart machine for display at the Smithsonian are Edward Ribbingille, assistant general manager of research at GM; Calvin Hughes, research biologist and project coordinator who ran the pump and oxygenator during all procedures; Dr. Dodrill, who performed the surgery; and Charles McCuen, GM vice president and head of research.
- In 1952, WSU physicians made history using a mechanical heart pump built by General Motors.
Was this project outsourced to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or the Pentagon? No way! It was a Michigan Project. GM Research Laboratory assisted by the Detroit Medical Center (parent company to Harper Hospital) and Wayne State University would labor for over two years, to design this modern marvel, the world’s first mechanical heart.
Was the project headed by an AT&T or IBM engineer? No way! It was a Michigan Project. The engineer in charge was Edward Rippingille, on loan from GM who said, “We (GM) have pumped oil, gasoline, water and other fluids one way or another in our business. It seems only logical we should try to pump blood.”
Were the engineering designs and specifications put into physical reality by a world famous Swiss laboratory known for it exacting craftsmanship? No way! It was a Michigan Project. Most of the fabrication and exacting hands on work was done by Charles Schafer a journeyman model maker on loan from GM. Echoing Mr. Rippingille, he said,
“We (GM) were building all kinds of engine parts and other devices in those days. You name it and we could build it!”
Were the laboratory tests on this first mechanical heart, at least, preformed at Harvard Medical School? By now, I think you know the answer. No way! It was a Michigan Project. Dr. Dodrill tested this device himself on eight dogs at Harper Hospital’s research laboratory in Detroit, Michigan. They must have been Michigan dogs, all eight of them survived!
On July 3, just one day before Independence Day, the operating theater at Harper Hospital contained two star performers: Dr. Dodrill and the human heart pump formally known as the Dodrill-GMR (General Motors Research) Mechanical Heart. The patient was Henry Opitek, a Michigan resident. And, just in case you are wondering, the mechanical heart was operated not by an imported big name medical doctor or a world famous university research scientist, but by Calvin Hughes, a GM research biologist. Again a Michigan Team from surgeon to patient and most importantly the intervening machine.
Admittedly, the machine looked a little out of place in the operating theater. To put it bluntly, it looked like an old Cadillac V-12 motor made out of stainless steel and glass, with six cylinders on each side, or pumps as the medical professions likes to call them. This machine had to pump oxygenated blood throughout the patient’s body, without fail, for second after second and minute after minute. The tolerances were not tight, they were perfection itself, if a single air bubble got into the blood flow, the patient would almost certainly have a stroke and die on the operating table. There was no 99.99% perfect; it had to be 100% perfect. But would, could, or was it even possible, for this locally designed and built, first of its kind, mechanical heart actually perform the impossible? It had to perform or the patient would die.
And did that mechanical heart ever perform! For 14 minutes, while the heart was being operated on, it circulated oxygenated enriched human blood through out the patient’s body without a missed beat or a bubble of air. The machine worked perfectly!
The surgery was a success; the patient recovered and went on to live a quality life of almost thirty years. For obvious reasons, when the story broke to the world, this modern marvel was renamed simply The Michigan Heart.
For centuries, life and death had been defined in terms of a beating heart versus a silent heart. No more! Now death could be suspended while a machine pumped oxygenated blood throughout the human body while a surgeon repaired the heart. By most estimates, worldwide this saves a million lives every year. This is approximately the population of Detroit, Michigan, counting every man, woman, and child. Death was not defeated, but it was being redefined by open heart surgery; all made possible by a masterfully designed and crafted machine. This machine was the start of modern marvels known as heart-lung machines that we take for granted today. But back in those days, even after splitting the atom in World War II, the National Institutes of Health considered successful open heart surgery physiologically impossible and had stopped funding all such efforts. Fortunately, the Michigan Team did not consider it impossible; it was just “another” machine to be designed and built for the good of all.
As a side note, the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C., asked for and received the Michigan Heart as part of their permanent exhibition; where it still resides fifty years later, a tribute to the Michigan Team.