Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame


Dr. C. Walton Lillehei - 1993 Inductee

(1918 - 1999) Minnesota born and educated, Dr. Lillehei is a world-renowned innovative cardiac surgeon; a pioneer in open-heart surgery, valve replacement and the electronic pacemaker. Known as the father of open heart surgery, his life-saving contributions have included pioneering work in the development of cardiac pacemakers and heart valves. At the University of Minnesota, where he was a medical school professor, he was a leader in developing techniques that first made surgery within the human heart possible. His work was instrumental in making almost commonplace critical operations on the heart that had been considered impossible.

He was a creative and inventive heart surgeon. He developed the cross circulation system by which a compatible donor was connected to the patient undergoing surgery to take over circulation of the patient’s blood. This pioneering event opened the door to open heart surgery for the repair of congenital heart defects, replacement of defective valves, and other operations on the heart, saving untold numbers of lives. From the cross circulations system evolved the bubble oxygenator, the first practical inexpensive disposal "heart-lung machine." Descendants of this device are in daily used world-wide life-saving used today.

As late as 1950, there was no workable substitute for the natural process that places oxygen into the bloodstream and circulates blood throughout the body. Heart surgery was thus limited to disorders that could be remedied without entering the heart itself. Lillehei cleared that obstacle, initially trying "cross circulation." in which the bloodstream of the patient undergoing surgery was linked by tubes to that of a healthy donor. It worked, but only at some risk to the donor, and the process was later abandoned. The turning point came in 1955 when Lillehei and a colleague, Dr. Richard A. DeWall, succeeded with a heart-lung machine, called a helix reservoir bubble oxygenator, which bubbled oxygen through the blood during an operation.

Lillehei played a prominent role in other breakthroughs that made treatments of once-fatal heart conditions possible. One such condition is known as a heart block, in which the body fails to produce the small electrical signals that regulate the heartbeat. By 1957, Lillehei and his colleagues in Minnesota had worked out a method of hooking wires directly into the living heart, supplying the electrical signals from outside the chest and taking the place of natural ones. Lillehei’s contributions include pioneering work (in association with Earl Bakken and Medtronic) in the development of practical cardiac pacemakers.

He was among the initial, small group of surgeons who performed human heart transplants. Methods and devices pioneered by him, including the first practical "heart-lung machine," have been developed and refined so that surgeons can now empty the heart of blood, stop its beat, open any desired chamber and safely carry out repairs in an unhurried manner, under direct vision, saving untold thousands of lives. The social and economic value of his contributions is immeasurable. He aided in the invention of the artificial pivoting disc Lillehei-Kaster heart valve. Beyond this, he has trained more than 150 cardiac surgeons from 40 countries, including some of the world’s most famous. Many of these have gone on to become heads of surgery departments at leading universities and hospitals around the world, in turn training others in continuing Lillehei’s lifesaving work.

Lillehei is the author or co-author of more than 600 technical and scientific papers. His contributions have helped make Minnesota one of the leading medical centers of the world, not only for diagnosis and treatment, but also for the myriad of manufacturers of medical devices. Patents are but one measure of innovation and creativity. Lillehei’s patents, although few in number, have been important widely used revenue producing patents.

NOTE: These biographies have been compiled from information accompanying the nomination form submitted to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, information available on the Internet and from a variety of other sources.