October 22, 2002
P. (313) 577-1429
50th Anniversary of First Open Heart Surgery
Wayne State’s Dr. Dodrill First to Use Mechanical Heart
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first
successful open heart surgery—a procedure that made medical
history in 1952, and is performed almost routinely today.
Dr. Forest Dewey Dodrill captured national headlines when
he used a mechanical heart pump to operate on a patient at
Wayne State University’s Harper Hospital in Detroit.
Funded in part by the American Heart Association, and built
as a public service by General Motors, the Dodrill-GMR (General
Motors Research) mechanical heart looked much like a Cadillac
V-12 engine. The historic operation re-routed blood around
the heart, allowing the surgeon to repair a damaged valve.
“We’ve come a long way since that first heart operation by
Dodrill in 1952. Now, it’s estimated that worldwide more than
one million open heart operations are done using some form
of heart-lung machine each year,” said Dr. Larry Stephenson,
Wayne State University cardiothoracic surgeon and medical
historian, who documented and researched the historic operation.
“Without some form of blood pump or heart-lung machine, many
of the heart operations we routinely do would not be possible.”
According to the American Heart Association, 753,000 open-heart
procedures were performed in 1999, the latest year for which
figures are available.
In the early 1950s, there were few surgical options for people
with heart ailments. A team of General Motors engineers used
Dr. Dodrill’s conceptual designs to construct a machine that
was used---not in a vehicle, but in an operating room.
“To develop this revolutionary machine, many GM engineers
and researchers volunteered their time to support this great
medical advancement,” said Joel Bender, MD, General Motors
corporate medical director. “Today, GM continues the tradition
of these selfless employees by funding research so medical
breakthroughs like the Dodrill-GMR can be possible.”
At age five, Julie Miller’s extreme heart defects restricted
her from normal physical activity. Dr. Dodrill performed surgery
in 1961, making her one of the youngest heart-lung machine
patients at the time. “Before the surgery, I didn’t have any
recollection of playing outside, bike-riding, just everyday
activities you’d think of a little kid doing. And after the
surgery, the doctors were amazed how quickly I recovered.
I had no limitations,” Miller said.
The success of Dodrill’s Michigan Heart started a wave of
research and medical advances that continues today.
“The Dodrill-GMR Heart created the opportunity for advances
in cardiac surgery we have witnessed over the past several
decades, including bypass of narrowed coronary arteries, repair
or replacement of damaged heart valves, and repair of congenital
heart defects, said Robert Bonow, MD, president of the American
Although new technologies continue to be developed to correct
heart problems, heart-lung machines are a mainstay for cardiac
surgeons. With very high rates of survival and success, open-heart
surgery is one of the most commonly performed operations in
the United States.
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Wayne State University has archived an extensive collection
of historical material, including original 1950s video footage
and photographs of early surgeries using the heart machine.
Available for personal interviews is Dr. Calvin Hughes,
co-inventor of the mechanical heart and research biologist
who operated the machine for all surgeries from 1951-1956.
He is the only surviving member of the Michigan Heart team.
Dr. Hughes is a resident of Saint Clair Shores, Mich.
A video news release with historical b-roll is available
on DV or Beta tape. Included in the VNR are interviews with
medical experts from the American Heart Association, General
Motors and Wayne State University.