These days, major medical news often lies in the realm of artificial insemination, organ transplants, artificial hearts and the ethical debates they inspire. Yet, just over a half-century ago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York was the scene of one of the first technological breakthroughs that Americans now take for granted.
In 1935, Alexis Carrel, a Nobel prize-winning French scientist and surgeon, and Charles A. Lindbergh, the man whose solo airplane flight conquered the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, collaborated to produce the first "artificial heart." Though a misnomer from the standpoint of today's definition, Lindbergh's and Carrel's device kept alive organs removed from animals.
In 1931, Lindbergh had invented a perfusion pump that circulated fluid through a segment of an animal organ, keeping it alive and functioning for at least a month without infection; Carrel was the co-inventor of a solution that preserved tissue.
By 1935, the two men combined their achievements to produce a glass apparatus that permitted an animal organ to be sustained and observed by scientists. Instead of merely guessing at changes that took place in an organ enveloped by an animal body, scientists hoped to identify significant details about heart disease, kidney disorders or even contagious ailments they could apply to humans.
The biggest obstacle was devising an apparatus that would remain free of outside bacteria and wastes from the living tissue itself. There was also the problem of getting the right kind of glass. As Lindbergh explained it, "The perfusion pumps I designed had to be made of a special glass that would not crack under the heat of sterilization or dissolve to the extent ordinary glass would in perfusing fluids. Such glass was sold under the name 'Pyrex.' "
The successful "artificial heart" consisted of three vertical glass chambers. The top chamber contained the organ in an aseptic, or sterilized, condition. The organ's artery was connected to glass tubing in the third or bottom chamber, which served as a reservoir for Carrel's artificial blood, comprised of oxygen and nitrogen. The middle chamber was an equalizer. As the artificial blood was passed from an outside source into the bottom two chambers, its pressure forced a rotary valve to alternately intake and exhaust the solution, mimicking the two cycles of pulsation.
In June 1935, Lindbergh and Carrel disclosed that glands, spleens, livers, hearts and kidneys of various animals had been kept alive. Such a revelation was both exciting and disturbing, as illustrated by the editorial reaction of The New York Times: "Gradually we are picking complicated creatures apart as if they were lumps of inert matter. It is a fine beginning -- an analysis. But the great synthesis, which is to tell us what life is and what is its meaning -- will man ever be ready for anything so overwhelming?"
Time magazine was much more optimistic: Carrel and Lindbergh "are going to thus transform medicine from a fine art into an exact science."
By year's end, popular reaction was more excited than awed, especially after a series of lectures by Carrel at the New York Academy of Medicine. Nearly 5,000 people turned out in December for one on "The Mystery of Death," a gathering that, the Times said, "resembled the scene at a large football game or a fight crowd at Madison Square Garden."
In the lectures, Carrel predicted that the artificial heart would lead to the day when parts of humans, or even entire bodies, could be placed in suspended animation for long periods, an argument he outlined in book-length detail in 1938 in "The Culture of Organs". Such a prediction from so eminent a scientist made for front-page news and led the Times to raise issues that are still timely:
"Immortality is a vain dream, as even Dr. Carrel emphasizes. But the lengthening of the accepted span of life -- accepted largely as a matter of tradition and hopelessness -- and with it an extension of the usefulness of such minds as Einstein's, should be a major objective of science."
After Carrel retired from the Rockefeller Institute in 1939 and returned to France, physiologist Richard Bing and Lindbergh moved the artificial heart to Columbia University. According to Kenneth B. Olson, a surgical trainee at the time, Bing and Lindbergh used the pump on approximately a dozen human fetuses that, for one reason or another, had been aborted. One fetus was kept alive for 12 days, Bing recalled.
Not surprisingly, crowds fascinated with Lindbergh's celebrity made it difficult for him whenever he visited the Columbia medical facilities, so he chose to make his appearances around midnight. "I visited two or three of these midnight sessions," recalls Olson, "and Lindbergh added much to the discussion and had a genuine interest . . ."
But Lindbergh's interest in the artificial heart ebbed with the outbreak of World War II, and his opposition to American entry in that war resulted in enormous controversy by 1941. In his autobiography, published after his death in 1974, Lindbergh spoke cautiously about the work.
"We had opened a new field with the perfusion of organs. A lifetime could be spent developing it. But suppose we solved all problems. Suppose we could install artificial hearts and transplant limbs at will. Suppose, even, that we could learn to remove one man's head and transfer it to the body of another. How much closer would we have come to solving life's basic mysteries? . . . How are the qualities of life susceptible to mechanistic concepts? After five years at the Rockefeller Institute, I placed less and less value on the mechanistic qualities of life."
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University.