Judy Chelnick, a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science, chats with us about the museum's collection of artificial hearts and other bionic organs, a selection of which were recently digitized. Many of the early iconic objects in the collection, which Chelnick describes as "world class," were acquired in the late 1950s and early 1960s in anticipation of the opening of the National Museum of History and Technology, the precursor to today's National Museum of American History.
How long have people been trying to make artificial hearts or organs?
The concept of an artificial heart is something that scientists have been thinking about for quite some time. One of the earliest instances that surfaces in popular culture is the Carrel-Lindbergh perfusion pump, which popular press coined "the artificial heart." The idea was that this hand-blown perfusion pump kept small animal organs alive over a period of time, which some people think is the pre-cursor to the heart-lung machine in the 1950s. The story is that Lindbergh's sister-in-law suffered from a diseased heart. So that was the impetus for him to go to Alexis Carrel at the Rockefeller Institute and talk about this idea of a way to substitute the mechanics of the actual heart for an artificial one.
Who are the big names in bionics history?
Willem Kolff is considered to be the father of artificial organs. Kolff was from the Netherlands and he was there during the Second World War when the Nazis occupied Holland. He had a patient who he lost to renal failure and started experimenting. He was a natural born tinkerer and after a lot of trial and error developed a workable artificial kidney. He tried 15 times on 15 patients and lost them, and then on his last patient, who happened to have been a Nazi sympathizer, it worked.
What would the experience of having an artificial heart be like?
Back in 1982 when they implanted the Jarvik 7 [the first artificial heart to be implanted for permanent use] in Barney Clark, the console they used to power the heart was a huge machine that stayed with you at the bedside. You are stuck in bed. The word that the journalists used over and over again was "tethered." You weren’t going anywhere. It took a number of years for them to produce smaller consoles and then eventually they came up with portable ones that you could literally carry around and later actually put on your belt and walk around.
What are some highlights from the collection?
The GMR Dodrill was called an artificial heart but it's really a bypass machine. That's a fun object because it looks like a V8 Cadillac motor and of course was developed at General Motors research. There's a precedent for this: John Gibbon's original heart-lung machine was developed together with IBM. And everybody said it looked like a computer.
The Sewell heart pump may be one of the coolest objects in the collection. During the 1950s there's a lot of experimentation, a lot of interest in the heart and in developing a device that can take over for the heart. We collected, this Sewell and Glen heart pump, but most people refer to it as the Sewell, because—are you ready?—Sewell's mother is the one who donated this to us. He was a med student at Yale and for his medical thesis, he built this machine. It successfully by-passed the right side of a dog's heart. It's made from an erector set; this was a really popular toy—for boys mostly—in the 1950s and the early 1960s who were mechanically inclined. And the total cost of the pump came to $24.80. The most expensive part was $9.00 for the erector set and motor. But you know there was this climate in the 1950s and 1960s that you could do anything and if you didn't have the parts you would find something that was going to work.
Judy Chelnick is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. She was interviewed by Mallory Warner, a project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science.