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Open Heart: Intracardiac Surgery at the University of Minnesota

The Mechanical Heart



Drs. Clarence Dennis and W. Harris showing operation of the heart-lung machine for open heart surgery

Drs. Clarence Dennis and W. Harris showing operation of the heart-lung machine for open heart surgery

By the late 1940s, as awareness of heart disease began to rise amongst the public, new methods for heart surgery were actively being tested in the University research laboratories. Inspired by surgical professor Clarence Dennis’ ability to design medical apparatus, Owen Wangensteen suggested to Dennis that he construct a machine that could function for the heart and lungs to allow for surgery on the open heart.

The idea of a “heart-lung machine” was inspired by the work of John Gibbon, Jr., who in 1930 began to experiment with the construction of a device that could take over the pumping and oxygenating functions of the heart and lungs in order to suspend the circulation of blood from the heart.*  The high complexity of Gibbon’s machine, which was later revised by IBM engineers, produced varying results in research conducted on animals.  After visiting Gibbon’s laboratory in Philadelphia to view Gibbon's research, Clarence Dennis returned to the University to begin work on his own model. 

In 1947, Dennis received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for a research project titled, “Development of a Pump Oxygenator.”  Over the course of the next four years Dennis and associate Karl E. Karlson developed a pump oxygenator capable of taking over the work of the heart and lungs.

*Gibbon achieved clinical success with a heart-lung machine in 1953.