Born in 1946, renowned medical scientist Robert Jarvik grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, and developed an affinity for the medical field at an early age, having frequently accompanied his father, an accomplished physician, to work. As a young man, he became fascinated with the intricate tools his father used during surgeries, and invented a number of medical tools, including a surgical stapler, while still a teenager.
As an undergraduate, Jarvik’s interests led him to study architecture and design alongside zoology and biology. Instead of becoming a licensed and practicing physician after receiving his M.D. from the University of Utah, Jarvik focused on medical research instead and promptly went to work alongisde his mentor, Dr. Willem Kolff, at Utah’s prestigious artificial organs program. Driven in part by the memory of his own father’s open-heart surgery, Jarvik sought to improve the longevity of patients who required heart transplants, and at the age of 36, invented the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. Unlike previous artificial heart designs, the Jarvik-7 was designed to be a permanent implant; previously, artificial hearts were highly risky and only used as a stopgap measure to keep patients alive while waiting for a replacement heart to become available.
On December 2, 1982, over the course of seven and a half hours, surgeons at the University of Utah Medical Center carefully implanted the Jarvik-7 device into Barney Clark, a dentist from Seattle with heart failure who was unable to undergo a traditional heart transplant. Clark, whose prognosis was grim before the surgery, lived for an additional 112 days after receiving the Jarvik-7, making the procedure the first successful permanent artificial heart operation in history. Over the next several years, over 70 Jarvik-7 artificial hearts were successfully used in patients, while researchers, including Jarvik himself, continued working on newer, more updated models. Today, the quest for a complete, long-term replacement for the human heart continues apace in the global medical field — a quest that took a giant leap forward thanks to Dr. Robert Jarvik, today in Connecticut history.
Bayard Webster, “A Pair of Skilled Hands to Guide an Artificial Heart: Robert Kiffler Jarvik,” New York Times
“Historical Inventors: Robert Jarvik,” Lemelson-MIT Program