C. Walton Lillehei
|Clarence Walton Lillehei|
October 23, 1918|
|Died||July 5, 1999(aged 80)|
|Education||University of Minnesota|
|Known for||being first to pioneer open heart surgery.|
|Institutions||University of Minnesota|
|Notable prizes||Harvey Prize in Science and Technology|
Clarence Walton "Walt" Lillehei (October 23, 1918 – July 5, 1999), was an American surgeon who pioneered open-heart surgery, as well as numerous techniques, equipment and prostheses for cardiothoracic surgery.
C. Walt Lillehei was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Clarence and Elizabeth Lillehei. He earned five degrees at the University of Minnesota, including his B.S. (with distinction) in 1939, his M.D. (Alpha Omega Alpha) in 1942, his M.S. in physiology in 1951, and his Ph.D. in surgery in 1951.
A Department of Surgery professor at the University of Minnesota from 1951 to 1967, Lillehei participated in the world's first successful open-heart operation using hypothermia. In 1944, Alfred Blalock at Johns Hopkins University had begun successfully performing surgery on the great vessels around the heart to relieve the symptoms of tetralogy of Fallot, demonstrating that heart surgery could be possible. Young and brash, Lillehei completed, at age 35, the first successful surgical repair of the heart on September 2, 1952. That historic operation, using hypothermia, was led by his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. F. John Lewis.
Hypothermia, however, only gave a brief window (up to 10 minutes) during which surgery could be performed and was therefore not suited for complex congenital defects within the heart. To resolve this problem, Lillehei performed surgeries using cross-circulation, in which a donor was hooked up nearby to take up the pumping and oxygenation functions of the patient as he was being operated on. Using this technique, Lillehei led the team that performed successful repair of a ventricular septal defect on March 26, 1954. Although the repair was successful, the patient, 13-month old Gregory Glidden, died 11 days later of suspected pneumonia. Lillehei and his team continued to use cross-circulation for a total of 44 open-heart operations in the following year, of which 32 patients survived. These surgeries included the first repairs of the atrioventricular canal and tetralogy of Fallot. In July of that year, a successful operation was performed on patient Mike Shaw of Litchfield, Minnesota.
In 1958, Lillehei was responsible for the world's first use of a small, external, portable, battery-powered pacemaker. It was invented at his behest by Earl Bakken, whose then-small company, Medtronic, designed and repaired electronics for the University of Minnesota hospital. After the introduction of the first widely used prosthetic heart valves by Albert Starr in 1961, Lillehei also developed and implanted several innovative designs: the Lillehei-Nakib toroidal disc (1966), the Lillehei-Kaster pivoting disc (1967), and the Kalke-Lillehei rigid bileaflet prosthesis (1968).
A dedicated educator, Lillehei trained more than 150 cardiac surgeons from 40 nations, including Norman Shumway and Christiaan Barnard, who formed half of the quartet which pioneered heart transplantation (the others being Richard Lower and Adrian Kantrowitz). In 1967, he was appointed Lewis Atterbury Stimson professor and chairman of the surgery department at Cornell Medical Center, New York. He returned to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1975, where he became the director of medical affairs at St. Jude Medical, Inc. He was also named a clinical professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Minnesota.
Lillehei's countless honors include the Bronze Star for World War II service in Italy, the 1955 Lasker Award, induction in 1993 into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and the 1996 Harvey Prize in Science and Technology. In 1966-67, he served as president of the American College of Cardiology.
Lillehei's brilliant surgical career was marred by a flamboyant personal style, reckless relations with women, and a conviction for income tax evasion. These unfortunate aspects of his life, together with the true brilliance of his surgical creativity, are detailed in Wayne Miller's book, "King of Hearts."
- C. Walton Lillehei (Minnesota Historical Society)
- 1920 Federal Census (Heritage Quest Online)
- Dr. C. Walton Lillehei (Vincent L. Gott, M.D. Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.Baltimore, MD)
- McRae, D. (2007). Every Second Counts. Berkley.
- C. Walton Lillehei, the Father of Open Heart Surgery (Denton A. Cooley, MD.Texas Heart Institute. Houston, Texas)
Other sources 
- Miller, G. Wayne King of Hearts, The true story of the maverick who pioneered the open heart surgery (Times Books. 2000)
- Goor, Daniel A. The Genius of C. Walton Lillehei and The True History of Open Heart Surgery (Vantage Press. 2007)