Alumnus, pioneer of open-heart surgery turns 80

by Nichol Nelson

In today’s world of sophisticated medical technology, it is easy to forget that at one time in history heart disease meant certain death.
Dr. C. Walton Lillehei pioneered a number of medical procedures like open-heart surgery that have completely changed the way coronary medicine is performed. The medical community will celebrate his 80th birthday this weekend with festivities that include a proclamation from Gov. Arne Carlson in his honor.
Lillehei, who has five degrees from the University, took part in the world’s first successful open-heart surgery at the University in 1952. With the help of colleagues, he also helped develop a mechanical means to replace the heart and lungs during surgery.
A reception at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on Friday night will honor the pioneer of heart surgery. At 7 p.m., Dr. Al Michael, dean of the University Medical School, will read a proclamation from Gov. Carlson declaring October 23 “Dr. C. Walton Lillehei Day” in the state of Minnesota.
Peter Gove, spokesman for the St. Jude Medical Center, said Lillehei is the “undisputed father” of open-heart surgery. Gove expressed admiration for Lillehei, whom he said has trained more than 1,000 cardiac surgeons during his career.
Gove said more than 150 cardiac surgeons will be present during the course of the weekend, which includes Friday’s reception as well as a clinical symposium on Saturday.
“I don’t think there is any other cardiac surgeon who could command the pure recognition he is getting this weekend,” he said.
Lillehei collaborated with Medtronic founder Earl Bakken to create the first external and wearable pacemaker, an achievement that Gove said has encouraged the development of the $2 billion pacemaker industry.
Lillehei also helped organize a group of more than 500 hospitals, clinics and medical manufacturers into a not-for-profit group known as Medical Alley.
Thomas Meskan, president of Medical Alley, explained the significance of Lillehei’s work in the medical community. He credited Lillehei with creating advances that have led to Minnesota’s role as a national health care leader.
“He is one of less than a handful of academic physicians who have served as primary sources of innovation in this state,” Meskan said.
Meskan’s admiration was echoed by Robert Howe, associate dean of the University Medical School. Howe met Lillehei in 1962, and he remembers watching the popular instructor walking his medical rotation.
“There was always a long entourage of people following him,” Howe said. “People came from all over to work with him; it was sort of like the U.N.”