Obituaries

Clarence Walton LilleheiJohn AndrewJohn Aubrey Luther BonnellKenyon Carnarvon BrownStuart Charles KennedyHarold Oliver PhillipsonEphraim Frank SwiftAlfred Butler TaylorMichael Richard Tomlinson

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7213.856 (Published 25 September 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:856

Clarence Walton Lillehei


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Father of open heart surgery (b 1918; q Minnesota 1941; MD, PhD), d 5 July 1999. This American surgeon of Norwegian descent contributed more to cardiovascular surgery than any other individual or even any other institution. He invented open heart surgery and then he defined it. Walt singlehandedly created the medical industrial complex as it relates to surgery of the heart. “What mankind can dream, research and technology can achieve,” he said. Like so many other young doctors Lillehei went into the army as a first lieutenant in 1942, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, picking up along the way a Bronze Star Medal and a European Theatre Ribbon with five battle stars.

In 1954 he was the first to repair complex congenital heart disease Controlled cross circulation provided access to the open heart for the correction of ventricular septal defects, tetralogy of Fallot, and atrioventricular communis defects. The following year Lillehei and DeWall developed the single helix bubble oxygenator. Today the oxygenator is a thriving industry providing safe cardiopulmonary bypass for thousands of patients on a daily basis. John Kirklin at the Mayo Clinic was not far behind. So for a time the only institutions in the world where open heart surgery was being performed were just 90 miles apart, the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Next came the invention that erased heart block as a lethal complication of open heart surgery. A multibillion dollar industry now flourishes in the wake of this contribution by Lillehei. In 1967 his professor of surgery at Minnesota, Owen H Wangensteen, retired. Walt was late in filing his candidacy and was already an outlaw with respect to the dean. So, when Cornell University in New York beckoned, Lillehei accepted the Lewis Atterbury Stimson Chair of Surgery. After …

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