Orvan Hess Biography


Birthday: June 18, 1906 (Gemini)

Born In: Pennsylvania, United States

Orvan Hess was an American obstetrician and gynecologist best known for developing the fetal heart monitor. As a kid, Orvan idolized doctor Gordon Maurer from Margaretville, who started the first hospital in the town. Following his high school graduation, Orvan earned degrees from Lafayette College and University at Buffalo and became an obstetrician and gynecologist. Orvan is known for being the first doctor to successfully use penicillin on a dying patient. Anne Miller, the patient, was almost on her deathbed, suffering from streptococcus infection when Orvan used penicillin to rid her of infection. In the 1930s, while working as a research associate at Yale University, Orvan began experimenting with a medium to record heartbeats of a fetus to help in healthy deliveries. After working for a few decades, he came up with a Fetal Heart Monitor which accurately recorded the heartbeats of fetus in the womb. It is considered as a revolutionary invention that has significantly reduced the events of stillbirths across the world. For his invention and contribution to the field of medicine, Orvan was honored with several awards and distinctions. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Orvan Walter Hess

Died At Age: 96


Spouse/Ex-: Carol

children: Carolyn, Dr. Katherine Halloran

Born Country: United States

American Men Male Physicians

Died on: September 6, 2002

place of death: New Haven, Connecticut, United States

Notable Alumni: University At Buffalo, Lafayette College

U.S. State: Pennsylvania

More Facts

education: Lafayette College, University At Buffalo

awards: AMA Scientific Achievement Award

Childhood & Early Life

Orvan Hess was born Orvan Walter Hess, on June 18, 1906, in Baoba, Pennsylvania. Soon after he was born, he moved to Margaretville, New York, after his mother died when he was 2 years old. He spent most of his growing up years there.

He became interested in medicine when he began idolizing Dr Gordon Bostwick Maurer, who had started the first hospital in the small town of Margaretville. He held the stature of a celebrity in the neighborhood and it heavily inspired Orvan to enter the same field.

Orvan was an excellent student academically. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at Lafayette College and graduated with a medical degree in 1927. For a higher degree, he entered the University at Buffalo and earned an M.D. degree.

He began working at a children’s hospital in Buffalo and later moved to New Haven. There he had a residency at the New Haven Hospital. He was a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics.

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While practicing medicine at the New Haven Hospital, Orvan also served in the Second World War from the United States of America. However, his biggest achievement came in 1942 when he became the first physician to treat a patient with penicillin.

Earlier that year, one of his obstetrics patients developed scarlet fever. It caused her to have a miscarriage and a streptococcus infection. Her case was becoming more complicated. The doctors had done everything, both medically and surgically but it seemed like there was no way to save her.

Orvan went to talk to his internist, who was sleeping in the library. Waiting for him to wake up, Orvan picked up a magazine, an edition of Reader’s  Digest magazine. In it, he read an article about how soil bacteria could kill the streptococcal infection in animals. The article titled Germ Killers From Earth became his motivation to try something like that. It was highly experimental and was never heard of before in the medical community.

He asked his internist, Dr John Bumstead, whether they could try it on his patient. Bumstead talked around with a few of his colleagues that were practicing with penicillin at that time and asked to get a little penicillin for Orvan’s patient. Anne Miller, the patient, was given an injection and within 24 hours, her fever broke. In a few days, she was healthy. She was almost dying and then she lived until she was 90.

It was a big deal for Orvan. However, when he told the success story at a St. Louis gathering of doctors, his achievement was brushed aside. However, despite that, Orvan and John became the first doctors in history to treat a patient with penicillin. His work initially went unnoticed but a few years later, he was awarded an American Medical Association’s Scientific Achievement Award for his work on Anne Miller’s case.

Fetal Heart Monitor

In the 1930s, Orvan was working as a research fellow at Yale University. It was there that the idea of the fetal heart monitor first came to him. It stemmed from his frustration with what was known as ‘watch and wait and pray’ method of childbirth. In which there was no way to decide whether the fetus was healthy or not inside the womb.

Doctors used a normal stethoscope to detect the heartbeats of the fetus but it was a troublesome process. The stethoscope also detected the mother’s heartbeats and during contractions when the mother’s heartbeats were louder, it was almost impossible to hear the fetus's beats. Hence, it was a troubling process and caused anxieties among the mothers and the doctors.

In the 1930s, he began working on a more accurate technique to measure the heartbeat of the fetus. By the late 1930s, his research was going strong but it was interrupted when he was asked for a World War II service in a front line hospital.

He finally returned to Yale University in the late 1940s and continued with his research. He worked alongside Dr Edward Hon, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. Finally, in 1957, they came up with a machine which was about six and a half feet in height and it accurately detected the electrical cardiac signals from the fetus. Orvan and Edward hence became the first doctors to achieve the feat.

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However, it was just an initial success and it needed a lot of improvement and tests. In the 1960s, he worked alongside Wasil Kitvenko to constantly improve the machine and make the monitor’s size smaller. The device came as a revolution for obstetrics as it also recorded the heartbeats during labor.

Currently, the Fetal Heart Monitor is credited with reducing the stillbirths and also helping the doctors to monitor more than one patient at a time. It is currently the second most used obstetrics equipment after the ultrasound machine. However, more recently there has been a debate whether the frequent use of the monitor is associated with an increase in caesarean section births. Orvan’s machine was still a pathbreaking invention in obstetrics that has drastically improved healthy childbirths across the world.

While it was mostly designed for high-risk pregnancies, it is also used frequently for normal pregnancies as well.

He remained a clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine. Later in his life, he also served as the president of the Connecticut State Medical Society. He also did a brief tenure as the Connecticut Welfare Department’s director for health services. He had also been honoured by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American College of Surgeons for his contributions to the medical community.

In 1975, he retired from Yale University but remained a ‘member of the staff’.

While he is still best known for his work on the fetal heart monitor and his use of penicillin, he also made other contributions to the medical world. He explained the use of cat gut in the perineum, in his first research paper which was published in 1936. While he was serving in the war, he also published several works on vascular injuries in the war.

Personal Life & Death

Orvan Hess married the sister of Dr Gordon Maurer, Carol Maurer, in 1928. The couple had two daughters, Carolyn and Katherine. His wife passed away in 1998.

Orvan passed away on September 6, 2002, in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 96 years old at the time of his death.

The very first fetal heart monitor built by Orvan himself, is currently placed in the basement of the Hartford Medical Society building in Hartford.

See the events in life of Orvan Hess in Chronological Order

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