Who Invented the Heart-Lung Machine?

How John Heysham Gibbon Invented the Heart-Lung Machine

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John Heysham Gibbon (1903-1973) was a physician who is widely known for creating the heart-lung machine.


Gibbons was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's from Princeton University in 1923 and his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1927. He also received honorary degrees from the Universities of Buffalo, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Dickinson College. 

As a member of the faculty at Jefferson Medical College, he held the positions of Professor of Surgery and Director of the Department of Surgery and was the Samuel D. Gross Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery. His awards include the Lasker Award, Gairdner Foundation International Award, distinguished service awards from both the International Society of Surgery and the Pennsylvania Medical Society, the American Heart Association's Research Achievement Award and election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and retired as Emeritus Professor of Surgery, Jefferson Medical College Hospital. Gibbon was also president of several professional societies and organizations including the American Surgical Association, American Association for Thoracic Surgery, Society of Vascular Surgery and Society of Clinical Surgery.

Early Experiments 

It was the death of a young patient in 1931 that first stirred Gibbon's interest in developing an artificial device for bypassing the heart and lungs that would allow for more effective heart surgery techniques. While he was dissuaded by all with whom he broached the subject, he continued his experiments and tests independently.

In 1935, he successfully used a prototype heart-lung bypass machine to keep a cat alive for 26 minutes. Gibbon's World War II army service in the China-Burma-India Theater temporarily would interrupt his research, but he would later begin a new series of experiments with dogs in the 1950s using IBM-built machines. The new device used a refined method of cascading the blood down a thin sheet of film for oxygenation rather than the original whirling technique that could potentially damage blood corpuscles. Using the new method, 12 dogs were kept alive for more than an hour during heart operations.

Success in Humans

The next step involved using the machine on humans. In 1953, a patient named Cecelia Bavolek became the first person to successfully undergo open heart bypass surgery with the machine totally supporting her heart and lung functions for more than half the duration. Ultimately, it took a collective effort to make the technology work. According to the "Internal Workings of the Cardiopulmonary Bypass Machine" by Christopher M. A. Haslego: 

The first heart-lung machine was built by physician John Heysham-Gibbon in 1937 who also performed the first human open heart operation. He is considered the inventor of the heart-lung or pump oxygenator. This experimental machine used two roller pumps and had the capacity to replace the heart and lung action of a cat. John Gibbon joined forces with Thomas Watson in 1946. Watson, an engineer and the chairman of IBM (International Business Machines), provided the financial and technical support for Gibbon to further develop his heart-lung machine. Gibbon, Watson, and five IBM engineers invented an improved machine that minimized haemolysis and prevented air bubbles from entering the circulation.

Before using the device on humans, it was only tested on dogs and had a 10 percent mortality rate. Further improvements came in 1945 when Clarence Dennis built a modified Gibbon pump that permitted a complete bypass of the heart and lungs during surgical operations of the heart. However, Dennis' machine was hard to clean, caused infections and never reached human testing.

A Swedish physician named Viking Olov Bjork helped advance the technology by inventing an oxygenator with multiple screen discs that rotated slowly in a shaft over which a film of blood was injected. Oxygen was passed over the rotating discs and provided sufficient oxygenation for an adult human. Bjork, along with help of a few chemical engineers, one of which who was his wife, prepared a blood filter and an artificial intima of silicon under the trade name UHB 300. This was applied to all parts of the perfusion machine, particularly, the rough red rubber tubes, to delay clotting and save platelets.

Bjork would later take the technology to the human testing phase and the first heart-lung bypass machine was first used on a human in 1953. In 1960, it was considered safe to use the CBM along with hypothermia to perform CABG surgery.