Latest Entry: The RSS feed for this blog has moved

Washington Post staff writers offer a window into the art of obituary writing, the culture of death, and more about the end of the story.

Read more | What is this blog?

More From the Obits Section: Search the Archives  |   RSS Feeds RSS Feed   |   Submit an Obituary  |   Twitter Twitter
Obituaries

Adrian Kantrowitz; Performed First U.S. Heart Transplant

Adrian Kantrowitz was a surgeon, researcher and innovator who developed many devices for heart patients. He did the first heart transplant in the United States in 1967, days after Christiaan Barnard pioneered the surgery.
Adrian Kantrowitz was a surgeon, researcher and innovator who developed many devices for heart patients. He did the first heart transplant in the United States in 1967, days after Christiaan Barnard pioneered the surgery. (Family Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Adrian Kantrowitz, 90, a doctor who performed the first human heart transplant in the United States and developed numerous medical devices that helped save thousands of heart patients, died of complications from congestive heart failure Nov. 14 at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor.

Dr. Kantrowitz transplanted the heart of a brain-dead baby to another infant Dec. 6, 1967, days after Christiaan Barnard had pioneered the operation in South Africa. The American baby died after six hours.

Dr. Kantrowitz had spent years doing the laboratory work and transplanted hearts in 411 dogs in preparation for a human heart transplant, and he was one of a handful of American physicians who expected to do the first transplant. In fact, 18 months before Barnard succeeded, Dr. Kantrowitz had attempted to save a baby with a congenital heart defect by transplanting the heart from a brain-dead infant.

Although he had approval from both sets of parents, at the last minute, two elderly members of his medical team at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn prevented him from going forward until the heart of the first baby stopped beating. By the time it did, an hour later, the heart was badly damaged and could not be transplanted.

Dr. Kantrowitz did two more heart transplants before turning away from that field and focusing on his well-known expertise in creating mechanical medical devices.

"I'm a surgeon and surgery is what I know," he told The Washington Post in 1977, explaining his decision to leave the field. "The problems involved in making this work on a broad basis are not surgical problems, they're immunological problems. I do not bring any special talent to solving those problems, nor does my team."

He had led a research team at the Brooklyn hospital that devised a series of innovative devices, starting in the 1950s.

Two of the most influential were the "left ventricular assist device," a battery-operated, mechanical pump-type device that is surgically implanted and helps maintain the pumping ability of a heart that can't function on its own.

He also invented the intra-aortic balloon pump, a balloon and tube that increase blood flow to the heart muscle and decrease the heart's workload through a process called counterpulsation. It can reduce the stress on the heart by as much as 25 percent.

His other inventions included an electronically controlled heart-lung machine in 1958 that allowed successful open-heart surgeries in children. In 1960, Dr. Kantrowitz and Rene Khafif built a large electronic system to deliver electric shocks to the legs of an anesthetized dog that produced walking motions, an important advancement in paralysis treatment. He also developed a miniature radio transmitter emitting signals that caused paralyzed human bladders to empty.

By 1970, amid growing controversy over the ethics of transplants and the inability of the Brooklyn hospital to support advanced cardiac research, Dr. Kantrowitz moved his surgical team to Sinai Hospital in Detroit. He became professor of surgery at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.

He was born Oct. 4, 1918, in New York City to a physician father and a mother who designed costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies. His interest in medical research began as a child through kitchen experiments conducted with his older brother Arthur, according to his papers at the National Library of Medicine.


CONTINUED     1        >

More in the Obituary Section

Post Mortem

Post Mortem

The art of obituary writing, the culture of death, and more about the end of the story.

From the Archives

From the Archives

Read Washington Post obituaries and view multimedia tributes to Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, James Brown and more.

[Campaign Finance]

A Local Life

This weekly feature takes a more personal look at extraordinary people in the D.C. area.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity