The heart is a vital organ that pumps blood through blood vessels throughout the human body, and is considered arguably the most important organ we possess. But despite its vital role in the everyday lives of humans, the heart can and does still get sick or damaged, making it nearly impossible for the affected person to live.

Because of this, scientists and engineers have spent decades studying and researching to develop a functional artificial heart. The goal of these artificial hearts is to make life possible when a heart fails, long enough for the affected patient to receive a donor’s heart. The successful production of artificial hearts has saved countless lives to date, though as of now, artificial hearts are only capable of functioning for a limited time.

The history of artificial hearts spans over six decades, and involves a great many doctors, scientists, and engineers, all of whom have played a part in developing a modern medical miracle.

The Beginning

The artificial heart’s beginning is somewhat questionable, as a few of the key people responsible for its development all started experimenting and theorizing about artificial hearts individually before they worked together.

Julien Jean Cesar LeGallois was the first person known to theorize “mechanical circulatory support,” in 1812. However, his theory wouldn’t become reality for a couple hundred years.

In the 1920s, Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel were next to work with the idea of an artificial heart. Charles Lindbergh was an inventor, mainly remembered as an aviator who flew over the Atlantic Ocean. Alexis Carrel was a surgeon who won the Nobel Prize for his modernism in human organ transplantation.

After innovations of their own, Carrel and Lindbergh together went on to create an “in-vitro artificial heart-like” device that would keep organs alive after removal from the body.

In 1937, Dr. Vladimir P. Demikhov became the first to develop a totally artificial heart (TAH). That same year, Dr. Demikhov also executed the first-ever coronary artery bypass surgery and intrathoracic transplantation. The artificial heart Dr. Demikhov created was comprised of two pumps alongside each other, and this device was successfully transplanted into a dog. That dog went on to live 5.5 hours after the surgery was complete.

In July of 1953, Dr. Demikhov reached a major milestone in his surgical career, and made artificial heart history, by performing the first successful coronary bypass surgery on a canine. For this, and other work in his field, he went on to earn the “first Pioneer Award,” given to him by The International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation.

IBM Model or the “Mayo Gibbon-Type Oxygenator”

In 1939, Dr. John H. Gibbon, Jr., from Philidelphia, Pennsylvania, published his research on artificial hearts, after successfully using his device in lab rats, who survived total body perfusion.

Long after the publication of his works, Dr. Gibbon went on to team up with IBM to develop and produce IBM Model I. The IBM Model I was successful when used on dogs, but its use in humans was far too limited.

In 1952, the IBM Model II heart-lung device was released for use on humans. But while the machine itself was well-designed, all three of its trials in humans, over the next year, resulted in patient death. Following the third death, Dr. Gibbon ended all work with the IBM Model II.

The Model III was released the following year. However, Dr. Gibbon had already shared the device with the Mayo Clinic, and in 1953 they proceeded to advance the device, naming it the “Mayo Gibbon-Type Oxygenator.” This early artificial heart went on to save hundreds of human lives.

Dr. Robert Jarvik

Dr. Willem Kolff
Photo: Los Angeles Times

Dr. Robert Jarvik, from Midland, Michigan, is renowned for his work on the first successful, permanent artificial heart, and has received the most acclaim amongst all of the previous inventors. But there’s more to the story than most people know.

In 1982, a 61-year-old patient named Barney Clark received the first successful, permanent artificial heart transplant, and Dr. Willem Kolff led the team that worked on this artificial heart.

At the University of Utah, in 1971, Dr. Kolff hired Dr. Jarvik to his team, which at the time was working on developing artificial organs. It was Dr. Kolff’s tradition to name the artificial organs after the doctors who were working on them, and it was Dr. Jarvik who happened to be working on the artificial heart. And thus, the artificial heart that made history, happened to be named the Jarvik 7, by simple coincidence.

Dr. Jarvik was only 35 when he became famous and received all the credit for the artificial heart, simply because it was named after him. This left the lead researcher, Dr. Kolff, to soon be forgotten. The injustice has never been righted.

The Jarvik 7 has been renamed several times, while maintaining the same specifications, and as of 2010 is known as the SynCardia Temporary (as of 2019, this remains true).

Following the SynCardia Temporary, the AbioCor TAH was produced. However, only one patient ever used the AbioCor TAH, as it went out of production due to complications.

In March, 2010, SynCardia released the Portable Freedom Driver, the newest artificial heart in production as of January, 2019. The Portable Freedom Driver is the most impressive artificial heart manufactured to-date, as it allows artificial heart transplant patients to return to a life similar to what they lived before their artificial heart transplant.

According to SynCardia’s website, “After a TAH patient becomes clinically stable, they can be switched from the Companion 2 (C2) Hospital Driver to the Freedom Driver, a smaller, lighter pneumatic pump for the TAH, which offers increased mobility. Patients who meet discharge criteria can then be released from the hospital to enjoy active and independent lives at home with their families and friends while they wait for a matching donor heart.”

SynCardia 70cc & 50cc TAH

To date, more than 600 patients have successfully received a SynCardia artificial heart, making it the most popular and successful artificial heart in history, and truly a medical miracle.