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Utah and the Artificial Heart: Impact and Reflections 40 Years Later

In 1982, a team at University of Utah Hospital made history by performing the first permanent artificial heart implant on a human. That operation was the result of decades of research and trials. The successful surgery made headlines around the world. 

Graduate student Emma Webb recently completed in-depth research of the procedure and U of Utah Health's place in medical history. 

Barney Clark and William DeVries Heart Surgery
Willem Kolff, MD, PhD, and William DeVries, MD, 1982.

The Team Involved

Researchers had been working since 1967 on artificial hearts. Then, in 1982, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval to U of U Health to perform the surgery. It would be the first artificial heart implant on a human. The team involved included:

  • Willem Kolff, MD, PhD, who immigrated to Utah from Holland and started the Department of Artificial Organs.
  • William DeVries, MD, led the surgical team and implanted the heart.
  • Robert Jarvik, MD, was the principal designer for the model of artificial heart used, the Jarvik-7.
  • Don Olsen, PhD, the head veterinarian, had led more than 300 animal trials for the artificial heart.
  • George Pantalos, PhD,.came to the University of Utah in 1983 and was heavily involved with research after the operation.
  • Barney Clark, was the patient for the operation.

Finding the Ideal Patient

DeVries couldn't find any patient to fit the criteria needed for the surgery. That's when his colleague, Jeffrey Anderson, MD, suggested Clark as the ideal candidate. 

Clark was a Seattle-based dentist, originally from Utah. He was suffering from end-stage cardiomyopathy. He was resilient and physically able to host the artificial heart with a will to live and a strong and loving family at home.

Clark took some convincing. But he wanted to contribute to medicine and humanity, so he agreed to the operation.

A Groundbreaking Surgery

U of Utah Health sent a memo to hospital staffers alerting them to the upcoming operation. They could expect some extra attention. But no one predicted the storm that would converge.

More than 70 reporters from around the world came to University Hospital and camped out for months.

A literal storm—a winter blast the night before—threatened to keep surgeons from traveling to the hospital on the day of the surgery. So they stayed the night at the hospital.

The operation stretched from near midnight to 6 am the next day. After the surgery, Clark lived 112 days at the hospital. He faced challenges in recovery including infection, seizures, and a broken valve on the heart that needed replacing. 

Barney Clark and William DeVries Heart Surgery
Barney Clark and William DeVries, MD, post op, 1982.

Clark eventually died from complications due to antibiotic-associated colitis. But before his death, Clark himself said he felt the surgery was worthwhile.

Surgery Leads to Attention, Questions

The operation made headlines across the world. All that attention raised questions, though. 

Was the medical team "playing God'' by choosing who gets the implant? The technology was new and expensive. Wouldn't public health measures and vaccination campaigns be a better use of resources?

Team members noted that if it was you or a member of your family facing imminent death, you'd want the medical team to do everything they could. The advances made would lead to lower costs in the long term, as well as other advances in medicine.

Long-Lasting Impact

The operation led to a small but strong community of researchers dedicated to artificial hearts. Conferences, programs, and journal articles about the procedure flourished. It was an exciting time for research and development. 

But Clark was the only person to get an artificial heart implant at U of U Health. If we pioneered the artificial heart implant, why isn't the university doing them today?

The focus shifted to using mechanical support, including left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), as a bridge to transplant. And advances in medication started reducing the need for surgeries. 

Today, mechanical support devices are smaller, more effective, and more cost-efficient. They're frequently used while a patient is waiting on a biological heart. 

The legacy of the artificial heart continues to fuel heart recovery research at the U.

Special Thanks to Emma Webb

This blog is based on research by Emma Webb. Webb is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Utah and a research assistant for the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library. Webb used materials from the History of the Health Sciences collection at the Eccles Health Sciences Library and J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, as well as conducting an oral history with a key participant to document the story. You can view Webb’s presentation on her research below. 

Emma Webb presents her research on the history of the artificial heart, 2022.

A Few Notable Hearts from University of Utah Health

  • Jarvik-7: The first permanent artificial heart implanted in a human.
  • Utah-100: Based on Jarvik-7. Never used in a human but flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery for research.
  • J7-V7: A vacuum-formed artificial heart. Developed to lower production costs and make heart transplants more accessible.
Elaine Thornton

Elaine Thornton, EdD, MSLS, MA

Elaine Thornton is the assistant director for the History of the Health Sciences collection at the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah. Thornton received a doctorate in education at University of Arkansas, a Master of Science in library science at University of North Texas, and a Master of Arts in History at University of Michigan.

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