100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Artificial Heart
Year of Invention: 1981

What Is It? A mechanical device to replace the human heart

Who Invented It? Robert Jarvik (in Ogden, Utah)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

We live only so long as our hearts continue to beat. When our hearts stop, we die. Heart disease is the number one killer in this country. Mechanical heart replacements could stop that killer in its tracks.

Heart transplants require a donor. One person dies so that another can live. Not so with a mechanical heart. An endless supply could be manufactured, sitting on hospital shelves, waiting for the need to arise.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Open-heart surgery began in the 1950s to repair defective heart valves. These operations were extremely risky, expensive, and used sparingly.

Successful heart transplant operations began in the 1970s. But donors for these operations were few and far between. Far more often, the patient died before a donor appeared.


How Was the Artificial Heart Invented?

In 1952, Soviet doctors implanted a plastic heart in a dog. It survived for 45 minutes. In 1958, Willem Kolff implanted a two-chamber, polyvinyl chloride heart in a dog. That animal survived for 90 minutes. Kolff then developed a silicon and rubber heart pump for a calf in 1965. That animal survived for over six hours.

American surgeon Denton Cooley was the first to implant an artificial heart in a human’ s body. In 1969 he implanted a plastic heart as a temporary measure while waiting for a donor heart. The patient survived for three days on the plastic heart before heart replacement surgery. Even after so short a time, the artificial heart showed signs of rejection wear and pitting.

By 1975, groups at a dozen university medical centers around the country were working on an artificial heart. One of these centers was at the University of Utah. That team was headed by 29-year-old Dr. Robert Jarvik.

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