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Wilfred G Bigelow

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 21 April 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:967

A pioneer of open heart surgery, who co-developed the first electronic pacemaker

Wilfred G Bigelow, known as “Bill,” introduced the concept and technique of hypothermia that first made open heart surgery possible. He also co-developed the first electronic pacemaker in 1950. In 1956 he was influential in developing the first formal cardiac surgery training programme in Canada.

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Dr Bigelow began researching hypothermia in a storage room in the basement of the Banting Institute in Toronto, Canada, shortly after the second world war. He theorised that cooling patients before an operation would reduce the amount of oxygen the body required and slow the circulation, allowing for longer and safer access to the heart.

His peers were sceptical, and his studies investigating how groundhogs hibernated in winter proved disappointing. However, after testing the cooling theory successfully on a dog in 1949, in 1950 Dr Bigelow and his colleague, Dr John Callaghan, presented their results at an American Surgical Association meeting. Three years later, the cooling …

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