Famous surgeon, U professor and grad dies at 80 of cancer

Sarah McKenzie

Funeral services for Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, a renowned University faculty member touted by many as “the father of open-heart surgery,” will be held at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis this morning.
Lillehei, 80, died Monday evening at his home in St. Paul. He reportedly battled cancer for several months; an autopsy is pending.
The former surgeon attracted international attention as a University professor in the 1950s when he became the first doctor to successfully perform open-heart surgery.
Medtronic Vice Chairman Glen Nelson, who studied under Lillehei in 1959, said it is hard to measure the surgeon’s impact on medicine.
“As a scientist, he brought one major contribution at the University of Minnesota to the world at large,” Nelson said.
Lillehei’s son, Kevin, said his father kept in contact with University medical students and faculty up until his death.
“The University meant a tremendous amount to him,” he said.
Several colleagues and former students honored Lillehei at the surgeon’s 80th birthday party in October, his son said. The festive event featured tributes from medical scientists from around the world.
The doctor earned all of his degrees at the University including a medical degree, a master’s in physiology and a doctorate in surgery.
Lillehei was named a professor in the Department of Surgery in 1951, and eventually took a position at Cornell Medical Center-New York Hospital in 1967. He returned to the University in 1975 as a professor of surgery.
Lillehei also collaborated with other medical scientists on the first battery-powered heart pacemaker. The innovation spurred the creation of local biomedical companies St. Jude Medical and Medtronic.
Terry Shepherd, president and chief executive officer of St. Jude Medical, issued a statement Tuesday lauding Lillehei and the surgeon’s accomplishments.
“His legacy of teaching, sharing and enthusiastically challenging established beliefs is a model for all to follow,” Shepherd said. “Our company, the University of Minnesota, Minnesota’s medical device industry and the practice of cardiac surgery all benefited by Walt Lillehei’s skill, intellectual curiosity and persistence.”
In a memoir of Lillehei, Dr. R. Galen Hanson of Benson, Minn., wrote, “The great teacher met us on our level, and left us never quite the same again for his visit with us.
Hanson served as associate professor in the Medical School’s Department of Family Practice and Community Health from 1973 to 1980.
Lillehei had a reputation for nourishing future brilliance among his medical students. Lillehei trained Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who went on to perform the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.
Despite the surgeon’s stunning credentials and high praise, Lillehei’s career is somewhat tarnished by an episode with the Internal Revenue Service in the 1970s.
In 1972, a federal grand jury indicted the surgeon for tax evasion for the years 1964 to 1968. He was convicted on all five counts in 1973.
Lillehei was ordered to pay $300,000 in back taxes and serve six months of community service.
His surgical career came to an end shortly after his tax troubles, but Lillehei continued to work with his colleagues in the Twin Cities medical community.
A memorial service for Lillehei is scheduled for Aug. 5. He is survived by his wife, Kaye, three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
— This report contains information from wire reports