Robert Koffler Jarvik, inventor of the first permanently-implantable artificial heart, was born in Michigan on May 11, 1946. He demonstrated his mechanical aptitude early, having invented such useful devices as a surgical stapler and other medical tools when he was just a teenager.
In 1964, Jarvik was a student at the University of Utah. His father became ill with heart disease and had to have open heart surgery. That’s when Jarvik learned that many heart disease patients need heart transplants. In some cases, however, heart disease is so severe that a patient may not survive the wait for a donor heart. In an effort to help those patients to live as long as possible with the heart that they have, medical scientists had begun to develop electronic devices such as defibrillators, pacemakers, and artificial heart models.
Jarvik became very interested in medicine at that point, and he began to think about possible designs for artificial hearts that could help people like his father. He decided to go to medical school, and in 1976, he graduated with his MD from the University of Utah.
By the mid-1970s, several artificial heart designs had already come into existence. In the mid-1950s, Dr. Paul Winchell patented an artificial heart. In 1957, a team of scientists, led by Willem Kolff, a Dutch-born physician, tested the model in animals in order to identify problems. Another model, which was tested in 1969 by a team led by the Texas Heart Institute’s Denton Cooley, kept a human patient alive for more than sixty hours. Physicians and scientists then began to consider the possibility of creating a permanent, rather than temporary, implantable heart model.
In 1982, Jarvik’s permanent design was the first of its kind. He called the artificial heart the Jarvik-7. Made of dacron polyester, plastic, and aluminum, the Jarvik-7 had an internal power system that regulated the pump through a system of compressed air hoses that entered the heart through the chest. The air hoses were connected to the chambers. The heart’s power system drove the pumps, which pumped blood through the patients’ body. Jarvik and his team tested the device on cows and other animals, making sure that the heart could consistently beat at least 100,000 times a day. Soon, it was ready to be tested on a human being.
In 1982, the first patient, Seattle dentist Barney Clark, lived for 112 days after the Jarvik 7 was implanted into his chest cavity during an operation that last 7 1/2 hours. Surgeon William DeVries of the University of Utah performed the surgery. Clark, who for various medical reasons had not been a candidate for a transplant operation, was never able to leave the hospital. The system was open to infection, so Clark and subsequent Jarvik 7 recipients got sick. Patients had to be kept on blood thinners to prevent clots and strokes. Clark died from multiple organ failure, but the Jarvik 7 was still beating when he passed away.
After Clark's operation, the Jarvik 7 heart was implanted many times. The record for being sustained by an artificial heart is held by William Schroeder, who was hooked to a Jarvik-7 in 1985. He lived for 18 months, though he suffered strokes, sudden hemorrhages, and infections during his final days.
By the end of the 1980s, about 70 Jarvik devices had been implanted to sustain patients waiting for transplants. Since then, the development of an improved artificial heart continued. Today, scientists continue to work on designs for an artificial heart that could provide a realistic, permanent option for survival.