Beginning in 1938, and continuing into the 1940s, surgeons from around the world reported the first successful methods to relieve and repair abnormalities of the vessels, valves and arteries connected to the heart. Surgery on the heart organ itself, however, was a formidable task. For patients diagnosed with congenital heart defects - namely, holes in the interior wall of their hearts - no method of repair existed. An incision into an actively beating and pumping heart was met with a river of rushing blood. Without a method to block the flow of blood to the heart to create a dry operative field for a surgeon to visualize the defect directly - while still providing life-sustaining oxygen to the organs and tissues of the body - surgery on the open heart remained impossible.
Open heart, or intracardiac, surgery became a research priority at the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s. Through the availability of state and national funding for medical research, increased awareness of heart disease, and an environment of collaboration and committed inquiry within the Department of Surgery, doctors at the University of Minnesota were able to perform the world’s first open heart surgery in a dry field under direct vision on September 2, 1952.
The multiple procedures devised for open heart surgery and the therapies invented to treat post-operative complications by researchers at the University of Minnesota made the University the leading center for open heart surgery in the mid-20th century. Members of the Medical School and the visiting surgeons who received training at the University during this period went on to establish intracardiac procedures at medical centers throughout the world.
Correspondence, articles, photographs, and ephemera contained within collections at the University Archives document the history and development of open heart surgery at the University of Minnesota and illuminate a critical period in medical history.
This exhibit was made possible with cooperation from the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota. Material selection, digitization, and narrative content was created by Rebecca Toov, Project Manager, University Archives.