Who was Clarence Walton Lillehei?
A pioneer in open heart surgery, Clarence Walton Lillehei was an American cardiac surgeon who was part of the team that performed the world's first successful open-heart operation. Open heart surgery, as commonplace as it is today, was an unimaginable concept just six decades ago. Even up until the 1950s, certain cardiac defects which are fully treatable today were fatal. But thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Lillehei who designed medical devices that made it possible to support the patient’s blood circulation while the heart was opened and operated upon, many formerly untreatable heart conditions are now easily treatable. Even as a young boy, Clarence was very bright and talented. The son of a dentist, his first career choice was to follow in his father’s footsteps though he later changed his mind to become a medical doctor. He received his medical training from the University of Minnesota and completed his residency under the guidance of Dr Owen Wangensteen who had mentored many a great surgeons. Lillehei was on his way to becoming a brilliant cardiologist when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given a 10% survival rate. The brave man did not let the devastating news deter his spirit and courageously fought the disease to become one of the foremost cardiologists of all times.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as the son of Clarence and Elizabeth Lillehei in Minnesota. His father was a dentist.
From an early age he displayed sharp intelligence and a keen sense of technology. He liked to dismantle and rebuild technological gadgets.
As a young teen he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a dentist. However, he soon changed his mind and decided to study medicine at the University of Minnesota.
He completed his surgical residency under Owen Wangensteen, the chairman of the University of Minnesota's department of surgery. Wangesteen was a brilliant surgeon and mentor under whose guidance Lillehei blossomed into a bright surgeon.
He earned his M.S. in physiology in 1951 and his Ph.D. in surgery the same year.
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He became a member of the surgical faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1951 and would serve here till 1967.
In 1950, however, he was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma of the parotid gland and given only a 10% chance of survival. He underwent extensive head and neck surgery and grueling radiation therapy to beat the disease. Though the treatment left him with a permanent physical disfigurement, the gutsy doctor returned to his medical career after recovery.
Lillehei was deeply interested in cardiology and focused his attention on heart surgery. Up until the 1950s, cardiac surgery was very risky and the mortality rate was very high for patients undergoing heart operations.
In 1952, Lillehei and Dr. F. John Lewis performed the world’s first successful intracardiac repair of a human heart using hypothermia, thus ushering in the era of open-heart surgery which had been impossible till now.
Working along with his associates he introduced the concept of “cross-circulation”, in which the patient was connected to a human donor. The donor would serve as a living oxygenator while the patient’s heart was being operated upon. During 1954-55 he used this method to repair 45 hearts.
The process of using a human donor was too complex and raised ethical questions. Thus he was determined to find an alternative. Lillehei and Richard DeWall came up with the bubble oxygenator in 1955.
In 1957, Lillehei and Earl Bakken introduced the first transistorized, wearable permanent cardiac pacemaker for clinical use. This was just one of his numerous inventions that also include the Lillehei-Kaster and St. Jude Medical valves.
He was appointed professor of surgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery at Cornell University Medical Center and surgeon-in-chief at New York Hospital in 1967 where he performed the clinical transplant of a heart and both lungs in 1969.
He unfortunately began to suffer from deteriorating vision when he was in his fifties, forcing him to quit his surgical career. However, he remained active as a lecturer and consultant. He also wrote a lot in spite of his failing vision.
He became the medical director of the St. Jude Medical Heart Valve Division in 1979 and held this position till his death.
Lillehei was a pioneering cardiac surgeon whose discoveries and inventions have made complicated heart surgeries possible. He was part of the team that performed the world’s first open-heart surgery and he also devised equipment for cardiothoracic surgery.
Awards & Achievements
He received the prestigious Albert Lasker Award in medical research in 1955 for his pioneering work in cardiac surgery.
In 1996, he was presented the Harvey Prize in Science and Technology for his "Pioneering role in the introduction, innovation and development of open heart surgery and his seminal contributions to the invention of the heart-lung machine and the pacemaker.”
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Kay Lindberg in 1946. The couple had a long and happy marriage that lasted till the doctor’s death. This union produced four children and several grandchildren.
Lillehei led an active life and was immersed in research till the end of his life. He was diagnosed with cancer during his later years and breathed his last on 5 July 1999.