Inventor of the Week Archive
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Robert Koffler Jarvik, inventor of the first permanently-implantable artificial heart, was born
in Michigan on May 11, 1946. He demonstrated his mechanical aptitude early, having invented such useful devices
as a surgical stapler and other medical tools when he was just a teenager.
In 1964, Jarvik was a student at the University of Utah. His father became ill
with heart disease and had to have open heart surgery. Thatęs when Jarvik learned that many heart disease patients
need heart transplants. In some cases, however, heart disease is so severe that a patient may not survive the
wait for a donor heart. In an effort to help those patients live as long as possible with the heart they have,
medical scientists had begun to develop electronic devices such as defibrillators, pacemakers, and artificial
Jarvik became very interested in medicine at that point, and he began to think about possible designs for
artificial hearts that could help people like his father. He decided to go to medical school. He graduated with
his MD in 1976 from the University of Utah.
By the mid-70s, several artificial heart designs had already come into existence. In the mid-1950s, Dr. Paul
Winchell patented an artificial heart. In 1957, a team of scientists, led by Willem Kolff, a Dutch-born
physician, tested the model in animals to identify problems. Another model tested in 1969 by a team led by the
Texas Heart Instituteęs Denton Cooley kept a human patient alive for more
than sixty hours. Physicians and scientists then began to consider the possibility of creating a permanent,
rather than temporary, implantable heart model.
In 1982, Jarvikęs permanent design was the first of its kind. He called the artificial heart the Jarvik-7.
Made of dacron polyester, plastic, and aluminum, the Jarvik-7 had an internal power system that regulated the
pump through a system of compressed air hoses that entered the heart through the chest. The air hoses were
connected to the chambers. The heartęs power system drove the pumps, which pumped blood through the patientsę
body. Jarvik and his team tested the device on cows and other animals, making sure the heart could consistently
beat at least 100,000 times a day. Soon, it was ready to be tested on a human being.
In 1982, the first patient, Seattle dentist Barney Clark, lived for 112 days after the Jarvik 7 was implanted
into his chest cavity during an operation that last 7 1/2 hours. Surgeon William DeVries of the University of
Utah performed the surgery. Clark, who for various medical reasons had not been a candidate for a transplant
operation, was never able to leave the hospital. The system was open to infection, so Clark, and subsequent
Jarvik 7 recipients, got sick. Patients had to be kept on blood thinners to prevent clots and strokes. Clark
died from multiple organ failure, but the Jarvik 7 was still beating when he passed away.
After Clark's operation the Jarvik 7 heart was implanted many times. The record for being sustained by an
artificial heart is held by William Schroeder, who was hooked to a Jarvik-7 in 1985. He lived for 18 months
though he suffered strokes, sudden hemorrhages, and infections during his final days.
By the end of the '80s, about 70 Jarvik devices had been implanted to sustain patients waiting for transplants.
Since then, development of an improved artificial heart has continued. Today, devices made by companies such as
Baxter Novacor, Abiomed, and others
have assisted thousands with heart disease. Scientists continue to work on designs for an artificial heart that
could provide a realistic, permanent option for survival. Jarvik is now working on the Jarvik 2000, a thumb-sized