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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

An Imperfect Heartbeat: Has the Artificial Heart Fulfilled Its Promise?

Evening Program with Book Signing

Inside Science program

Thursday, December 13, 2018 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1A0072
Liotta-Cooley artificial heart, used in first human implant, 1969 (National Museum of American History, Photo: Eric Long)

Can a mechanical heart replace a human one? The technological promise of a cure for heart failure aligned with the 20th-century American medical community’s view of the body as an entity of replaceable parts. Over the past six decades, the development and use of these devices has revealed both their possibilities and limitations.

Drawing on her new book, Artificial Hearts: The Allure and Ambivalence of a Controversial Medical Technology, Shelley McKellar discusses the successes and the shortcomings of this medical breakthrough. She argues that desirability, rather than the feasibility or practicality of an artificial heart drove its invention. Technical challenges and unsettling clinical experiences produced an ambivalence toward its continued development by many researchers, clinicians, politicians, bioethicists, and the public.

McKellar traces generations of researchers and types of devices (many examples of which reside in the Smithsonian’s collection), as she reviews the heart’s development and clinical use. She examines the professional fall-out between medical pioneers Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley after the first artificial heart implant case in 1969; Barney Clark’s Jarvik-7 implant in the early 1980s; and the varied physical experiences, both negative and positive, of numerous artificial-heart recipients.

She also explores how some individuals—like former Vice President Dick Cheney—affected the public profile of this technology by choosing to be implanted with artificial hearts

Learn why McKellar believes that artificial hearts are life-sustaining but imperfect devices whose controversial history speaks to questions of expectations, limitations, and uncertainty in a high-technology medical world.

Artificial Hearts (Johns Hopkins University Press) is available for sale and signing.

Smithsonian Connections

Take a look at the Liotta-Cooley artificial heart from 1969, the first device ever to be implanted in a patient, part of the Smithsonian’s collections.  And learn from how cow–machine hybrids and continuous-flow technologies are helping people survive devastating heart failure.

Inside Science

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)