William Castle DeVries

William DeVries (born 1943) performed the first artificial heart transplant on a human patient.

Dr. William DeVries and his surgical team at the University of Utah Medical Center made medical history and national headlines on 2 December 1982, when they replaced the diseased heart of Barney Clark with the Jarvik-7, the first permanent artificial heart ever used for a human patient. DeVries was the only surgeon authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implant an artificial heart into a human.

A Fateful Lecture

William DeVries was the son of a physician and a nurse. His widowed mother remarried and brought him up in Ogden, Utah. The young DeVries had an early mechanical bent and excelled in sports and his studies. During his first year in medical school at the University of Utah College of Medicine, he attended a lecture by Dutch-born Dr. Willem Kolff, a pioneer of biomedical engineering. Drawn to Kolff's work, DeVries asked him for a position on his research team. When DeVries introduced himself, Kolff replied, "That's a good Dutch name. You're hired!" In his work for Kolff, DeVries performed experimental surgery on the first animal recipients of the artificial heart. DeVries left Utah to do his internship and residency in cardiovascular surgery at Duke University, but returned to Kolff 's team in 1979.

The Jarvik-7

When DeVries rejoined the team, he began to use Dr. Robert K. Jarvik's design for a mechanical heart. The Jarvik-7 replaced the ventricles of the human heart. Its pumping action came from compressed air from an electrical unit located outside the patient's body. After many experiments implanting the mechanism into animals, DeVries began the long and hard process of getting the permission required by the FDA to implant the heart into a human patient. After FDA approval in 1982, a panel of six members at the University of Utah Medical Center began reviewing heart patients. The decision made by DeVries, two cardiologists, a psychiatrist, a nurse, and a social worker had to be unanimous. The first patient they chose was sixty-one-year-old Barney Clark. After suffering a series of medical complications closely followed by the news media, Clark died 112 days after his artificial-heart surgery.

Innovative Therapy or Hard-Core Experimentation?

Many people expressed philosophical, religious, and practical objections to the artificial-heart program. DeVries felt these slowed his work in Utah, so he left his post for a new position. The second implantation of the device occurred at DeVries's new appointment at the Humana Human Heart Institute International in Louisville, Kentucky. DeVries's patients at Humana also suffered setbacks widely covered by the media. DeVries and the Humana Institute were criticized for publicity seeking. Life magazine referred to "the Bill Schroeder Show" in an article about DeVries's second patient who suffered several strokes following implantation. After critics began to charge that the implant substituted mechanical heart disease for human heart disease, DeVries seemed to concede the dilemma when he said, "People always look at artificial hearts as innovative therapy. But the other part is hard-core experimentation. You may exchange one set of complications for another."

An Unusual Eulogy

Doctors do not usually attend their patients' funerals because of an unwritten code about maintaining professional distance, but DeVries attended the funerals of several of his patients, including Barney Clark and Murray Haydon. At the widow's request, DeVries gave the eulogy at Bill Schroeder's funeral. By March 1987, forty-nine Jarvik-7 hearts were implanted by different surgeons in different parts of the world in dying patients as temporary bridges to transplantation. In January 1988 DeVries was close to performing his fifth artificial-heart transplant when a human donor heart was found for the patient. In January 1990 the FDA withdrew its approval of the Jarvik-7, ending the innovative program.

Further Reading on William Castle DeVries

The Schroeder Family with Martha Barnette, The Bill Schroeder Story (New York: Morrow, 1987).

Jeff Wheelright, Donna E. Haupt, and William Strode, "Bill's Heart; the Troubling Story Behind a Historic Experiment," Life (May 1985): 33+.