OPB has premiered a new documentary that traces the development of the world’s first successful artificial mitral heart valve by a young, Oregon-based cardiac surgeon and a retired engineer. Their artificial heart was first successfully implanted in a human in 1960 in Portland.
“Oregon’s Pioneering Hearts” is the latest episode from “Oregon Experience,” an original OPB series that explores thought-provoking histories of the Northwest. In this episode, learn about how the Starr-Edwards valve came to be and the inventors behind it.
Comprised of a silastic ball enclosed in a metal cage, the Starr-Edwards valve was a revolutionary breakthrough in cardiac surgery, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world suffering from diseased or damaged heart valves that could not be repaired.
Dr. Albert Starr was born in New York City in 1926 and received his medical degree from Columbia College in 1949. In 1957, Starr was recruited to establish the first open-heart surgery program at the University of Oregon Medical School, which is now OHSU. A year later he performed Oregon’s first pediatric open-heart surgery.
Retired engineer M. Lowell Edwards was born in Newberg, Oregon in 1898. His grandparents and parents were early pioneers and entrepreneurs in the area and helped found Pacific College (now George Fox University). Edwards graduated from Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in 1924 with a degree in electrical engineering and would specialize in designing industrial pumps. Considered an engineering genius by many, Edwards was a prolific inventor with more than 60 patents.
Edwards saw the human heart as a pump, too, and approached Starr in 1958 with an idea to produce an artificial heart.
“Dr. Starr could have thought this guy is crazy, but he didn’t,” said OHSU emeritus professor of surgery, Dr. Richard Mullins. “The two had a conversation.”
Starr convinced Edwards they needed a successful artificial heart valve first and they agreed to embark on an ambitious project, each offering expertise in their respective fields. Edwards made valve prototypes in his home workshop and Starr developed the precise surgical technique needed to implant them.
After two years of intense collaboration, constant design modifications and experimental animal surgeries, Starr began implanting the device in critically ill patients with no other treatment options available. The success of the Starr-Edwards mechanical heart valve was heard around the world, giving patients hope and launching a new era of cardiac valve replacement.
“Oregon’s Pioneering Hearts” tells the story of a serendipitous meeting and the partnership between the two men each with their respective skills, vision and determination to succeed.
The documentary is written and produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Dan Evans. All “Oregon Experience” episodes are made possible by the generous support of OPB members. For more information, please visit opb.org.