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Clarence Walton Lillehei

Born 1918
Died 1999

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American surgeon, born October 23, 1918, Minneapolis; died July 5, 1999, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Biography of Clarence Walton Lillehei

Clarence Walton Lillehei has been called the "father of open heart surgery." He earned an undergraduate degree in 1939 and graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1942. He also received a master’s in physiology and in 1951 he received his Ph.D. in Surgery from the University of Minnesota Graduate School. During World War II he served with the U.S. Army in Africa and Italy.

In 1951 became a clinical instructor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School, from 1956 he was professor of surgery. From 1967 he was professor of Surgery and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Cornell University Medical Center and surgeon-in-chief at New York Hospital. In 1974 he returned to Minnesota, where he became professor of surgery at University of Minnesota Hospital in 1986. From 1970 he was also Director of Medical Affairs for St. Jude Medical, Incorporated. Because of deteriorating vision caused by a cancer radiation treatment he underwent in 1950, he had to end his surgical career at age 55.

Lillehei is generally considered as initiator of open heart surgery. On September 2, 1952, Lillehei and Dr. John Lewis performed the first successful open heart surgery. The patient was a five-year-old girl who had been born with a hole in her heart. This was made possible by cooling the girl to a temperature of about 27 degrees Celsius, so that she could survive for ten minutes without a pumping heart.

Lillehei developed cross-circulation between patient and parent, and on March 26, 1954, at the University of Minnesota, Lillehei and his team – Morley Cohen, Herb Warden, and Richard Varco – first repaired a ventricular septal defect, in an 13 months old boy. The boy's anaesthetised father served as the oxygenator. Blood flow was routed from the patient's caval system to the father's femoral vein and lungs, where it was oxygenated and then returned to the patient's carotid artery. The boy died of pneumonia eleven days later.

Over the next 15 months, Lillehei operated on 45 patients with intracardiac malformations not previously correctable. Most of these patients were less than 2 years old. 32 of them survived the operation.

In 1955 Lillehei replaced the cross-circulation method with the first clinically successful heart-lung machine, a helix bubble reservoir oxygenator, developed by his assistant, Richard A. DeWall. With DeWall, Lillehei also developed the simplified heart-lung machine based on bubble oxygenation. From 1955 to 1957 more than 350 patients had open heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospital with the bubble oxygenator.

In order to prevent heart block, which was major cause of death in the first patients undergoing open heart surgery, the first external pacemaker was developed. A research team consisting of Lillehei and his colleagues, collaborating with Medtronic engineers, had found that by combining a pulse generator with a wire electrode attached directly to the hearts of dogs, heart rates could be controlled. The pacemaker was first used on January 10, 1957 at the University of Minnesota Hospital.

These dramatic advancements in heart surgery made University of Minnesota Hospital a major centre for training of cardiothoracic surgeons. Among his students at Minnesota was the South African surgeon who in 1967 performed history's first heart transplant

In 1969 Lillehei led the team that did the first transplant of the heart and both lungs at New York Hospital.

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