Biography of John Heysham Gibbon Jr., Heart-Lung Machine Inventor

John Heysham Gibbon Jr.

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John Heysham Gibbon Jr. (Sept. 29, 1903–Feb. 5, 1973) was an American surgeon who was widely known for creating the first heart-lung machine. He proved the efficacy of the concept in 1935 when he used an external pump as an artificial heart during an operation on a cat. Eighteen years later, he performed the first successful open-heart operation on a human using his heart-lung machine.

Fast Facts: John Heysham Gibbon

  • Known For: Inventor of the heart-lung machine
  • Born: Sept. 29, 1903 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: John Heysham Gibbon Sr., Marjorie Young
  • Died: Feb. 5, 1973 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Education: Princeton University, Jefferson Medical College
  • Awards and Honors: Distinguished Service Award from International College of Surgery, fellowship from Royal College of Surgeons, Gairdner Foundation International Award from University of Toronto
  • Spouse: Mary Hopkinson
  • Children: Mary, John, Alice, and Marjorie

Early Life of John Gibbon

Gibbon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 29, 1903, the second of four children of surgeon John Heysham Gibbon Sr. and Marjorie Young. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1923 and his M.D. from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1927. He completed his internship at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1929. The following year, he went to Harvard Medical School as a research fellow in surgery.

Gibbon was a sixth-generation physician. One of his great-uncles, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, is memorialized by a monument to his bravery on the Union side in the Battle of Gettysburg, while another uncle was a brigade surgeon for the Confederacy in the same battle.

In 1931 Gibbon married Mary Hopkinson, a surgical researcher who was an assistant in his work. They had four children: Mary, John, Alice, and Marjorie.

Early Experiments

It was the loss of a young patient in 1931, who died despite emergency surgery for a blood clot in her lungs, that first stirred Gibbon's interest in developing an artificial device for bypassing the heart and lungs and allowing for more effective heart surgery techniques. Gibbon believed that if doctors could keep blood oxygenated during lung procedures, many other patients could be saved.

While he was dissuaded by all with whom he broached the subject, Gibbon, who had a talent for engineering as well as medicine, independently continued his experiments and tests.

In 1935, he used a prototype heart-lung bypass machine that took over cardiac and respiratory functions of a cat, keeping it alive for 26 minutes. Gibbon's World War II Army service in the China-Burma-India Theater temporarily interrupted his research, but after the war he began a new series of experiments with dogs. For his research to proceed to humans, though, he would need help on three fronts, from doctors and engineers.

Help Arrives

In 1945, American cardiothoracic surgeon Clarence Dennis built a modified Gibbon pump that permitted a complete bypass of the heart and lungs during surgery. The machine, however, was hard to clean, caused infections, and never reached human testing.

Then came Swedish physician Viking Olov Bjork, who invented an improved oxygenator with multiple rotating screen discs over which a film of blood was injected. Oxygen was passed over the discs, providing sufficient oxygenation for an adult human.

After Gibbon returned from military service and restarted his research, he met Thomas J. Watson, CEO of International Business Machines (IBM), which was establishing itself as a premier computer research, development, and manufacturing firm. Watson, who was trained as an engineer, expressed interest in Gibbon's heart-lung-machine project, and Gibbon explained his ideas in detail.

Shortly thereafter, a team of IBM engineers arrived at Jefferson Medical College to work with Gibbon. By 1949, they had a working machine—the Model I—that Gibbon could try on humans. The first patient, a 15-month-old girl with severe heart failure, didn't survive the procedure. An autopsy later revealed that she had an unknown congenital heart defect.

By the time Gibbon identified a second likely patient, the IBM team had developed the Model II. It used a refined method of cascading blood down a thin sheet of film to oxygenate it rather than the whirling technique, which could potentially damage blood corpuscles. Using the new method, 12 dogs were kept alive for more than an hour during heart operations, paving the way for the next step.

Success in Humans

It was time for another try, this time on humans. On May 6, 1953, Cecelia Bavolek became the first person to successfully undergo open-heart bypass surgery with the Model II totally supporting her heart and lung functions during the procedure. The operation closed a serious defect between the upper chambers of the 18-year-old's heart. Bavolek was connected to the device for 45 minutes. For 26 of those minutes, her body totally depended upon the machine’s artificial cardiac and respiratory functions. It was the first successful intracardiac surgery of its kind performed on a human patient.

By 1956 IBM, well on its way to dominating the fledgling computer industry, was eliminating many of its non-core programs. The engineering team was withdrawn from Philadelphia—but not before producing the Model III—and the huge field of biomedical devices was left to other companies, such as Medtronic and Hewlett-Packard.

That same year, Gibbon became the Samuel D. Gross professor of surgery and head of the surgery department at Jefferson Medical College and Hospital, positions he would hold until 1967.


Gibbon, perhaps ironically, suffered from heart trouble in his later years. He had his first heart attack in July 1972 and died of another massive heart attack while playing tennis on Feb. 5, 1973.


Gibbon's heart-lung machine undoubtedly saved countless lives. He is also remembered for writing a standard textbook on chest surgery and for teaching and mentoring countless physicians. Upon his death, the Jefferson Medical College renamed its newest building after him.

Over his career, he was a visiting or consulting surgeon at several hospitals and medical schools. His awards included the Distinguished Service Award from the International College of Surgery (1959), an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in England (1959), the Gairdner Foundation International Award from the University of Toronto (1960), honorary Sc.D. degrees from Princeton University (1961) and the University of Pennsylvania (1965), and the Research Achievement Award from the American Heart Association (1965).


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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of John Heysham Gibbon Jr., Heart-Lung Machine Inventor." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). Biography of John Heysham Gibbon Jr., Heart-Lung Machine Inventor. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of John Heysham Gibbon Jr., Heart-Lung Machine Inventor." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).