On Valentine’s Day: A Brief History of the Mechanical Heart

Love, the unmapped genome of human emotion. It’s right up there with dark matter and whatever it is that makes peanut butter so delicious. We may never be able to reverse-engineer a concept so intangible. But today, we can do a pretty good job of reconstructing the mechanics of the human heart.

The first mechanical heart is also one of the most infamous medical innovations from the twentieth century. Named the Liotta-Cooley, after it’s inventor Dr. Domingo Liotta, and the surgeon who implanted it, Dr. Denton Cooley, the device was deemed a success after keeping patient Haskell Carp alive for the 64 hours required to find a viable transplant.

All this took place on April 4th, 1969. To some, that might seem fairly recent, but in reality the Liotta-Cooley was ahead of its time.

To provide some perspective, the first broadcast of a radioelectrocardiogram by Norman Holter (the precursor to the modern heart monitor) didn’t happen until 1947. The first fully implantable pacemaker, designed by Rune Elmqvist and Ake Senning, was surgically implanted in a patient in Sweden in 1958.

For an artificial heart to be built and then successfully placed in a patient only eleven years later is remarkable, not only for the medical community, but for the entire world.

Considering the manufacturing technology available and the industrial burden a replacement heart has to meet, what Liotta created out of plastic and mesh, is truly breathtaking. At an average of 72 bpm, the human heart is pumping about 1.3 gallons of blood per minute. Extrapolate, and that’s 1872 gallons a day, 683,280 gallons per year, and over 54 million gallons in an 80 year span; that’s the equivalent of over 80 Olympic swimming pools. For a pump weighing less than a pound, any comparable replacement would really have to take a beating (pun intended).

For years after the successful surgery, both Dr. Liotta and Dr. Cooley were rebuked for going ahead with the experimental surgery without the formal consent of the medical community. Nevertheless, the Liotta-Cooley was a brave first step in the right direction.

In 2001, an electro-hydraulic heart was implanted in a human patient in Lousiville. This was only the second attempt at using an artificial heart as a permanent solution, the first being an air-powered heart, the Jarvik-7.

These experimental designs required specialized procedures, and perhaps neither would have been possible without the Liotta-Cooley.

Even in name, the Liotta-Cooley sounds like the title given to a futuristic interpretive piece at a modern art museum, and in a way, that’s exactly what it has become. What’s left of the artificial heart can be found at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., suspended in a formaldehyde solution, an effective reminder of both the risks and rewards that continues to inspire innovation.

Photo: heart_manu by SigNote Cloud on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This entry was posted in Industry News, Medical Devices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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