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C. Walton Lillehei:
Transcript of Interview Excerpt

Earl Bakken and C. Walton Lillehei, interviewed by David Rhees, on September 9, 1997 at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

CWL: Well, I first met Earl Bakken because he appeared one day and the supervisor of the operating room suites introduced me to him. I was her response to some vigorous, vociferous complaints of longstanding, I think six months or more, we started open-heart surgery with a heart/lung machine, the bubble oxygenator, in '54. This was some time in late '54, or early '55, that Earl appeared.

My problems were in the operating rooms here. Once you started anesthesia, there were a dozen pumps and suction machines and special lights with sixty-cycle interference, and so electrocardiogram was a very important aid that sat beside the patient, that we could get strips off of the heart rhythm. In those days, diagnosis was quite primitive, as was the surgery, so frequently the preoperative diagnosis was not correct, so the electrocardiogram was very important. Another device that was in the operating room, sitting beside the patient, was a Sanborn pressure recorder, because you put needles in various chambers to ascertain what the pressure was, and that would give you, many times, the answer to your diagnostic uncertainty.

I think Mr. Bakken - maybe Earl can say a few words. I think he was selected by Mrs. Sholtice because he was an expert in marketing the Sanborn pressure recorders, and he was willing to come in the operating room. Laypeople, some people around our laboratory, or workers, that were knowledgeable about some of this equipment, but they wouldn't come in the operating room when an operation was in progress.

DR: You were saying many people wouldn't come into the operating room to work on the electrical equipment.

CWL: For example, electrical experts in the hospital, electricians, absolutely refused to come in the operating room when an operation was in progress. They said it was not part of their contract. Aside from that, it's understandable, they're a layperson, they're frightened by it.

EB: Yes. In that time, too, the engineers knew very little about electronics, and so they were just scared to tackle anything electronic. Remember, this was just after World War II, and the electronic devices were just starting to move into laboratories and then into operating rooms and other areas. They were all vacuum tubes, and so they didn't know anything about those kinds of things. Now all hospitals have people that are bioengineers and can tackle electronic equipment.

CWL: My request to Mrs. Sholtice repeatedly - her first name was Jenner - "Jenner, we need someone that can come into the operating room and be there when we need them." So Earl Bakken was that first and last person, as far as I was concerned. He was there for all the time that I was working here, and he'd come over for every open-heart operation. He was here at the beginning and stayed until the end, and back and forth out of the room, in the room, whatever necessary, and was a great help.

DR: I guess the sight of blood didn't bother you, Earl?

EB: Well, I had gotten over it long before them with spending time in the animal lab and working on the dogs, eating lunch over an open animal. It used to be very interesting down in the animal labs here with all the barking. Pretty interesting years, when you look back on them. I wish I had known more what pioneering work was going on that I was being a part of it. I'm proud now to have been a small part of it.


Biographical Information

C. Walton Lillehei was born and educated in Minnesota. In the early 1950s, he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. He developed new procedures and ideas for medical devices like pacemakers and heart valves to improve heart function. He served as a researcher and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He was the Medical Director of St. Jude Medical’s Heart Valve Division. He died in 1999.

C. Walton Lillehei