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No. 318:
Lindbergh's Heart Pump

Today, an unexpected invention from an unexpected inventor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

How do you suppose Charles Lindbergh managed to fly the Atlantic? So much is said about his courage and determination. He had rare nerve, no doubt. But not enough is said about his mind. Lindbergh did what others couldn't do because he knew machines. He had a big hand in designing the highly specialized Spirit of St. Louis that took him to France.

We've all but forgotten the medical work Lindbergh did a few years later. In 1930 a relative suffered heart trouble. Doctors couldn't operate without stopping the heart, but that would kill him. That struck Lindbergh as a solvable problem. So he talked to Alexis Carrel, who held the Nobel Prize for his work in organ transplants and suturing blood vessels.

Carrel was respected, but he was odd. His operating room was solid black. So was operating room dress. Author Christopher Hallowell tells us that he "flirted with arcane mysticism" and that he harbored bizzare racial theories. Well, Lindbergh was an odd enough duck himself. He alienated people before the war with his isolationist ideas. In any case, the two took a real shine to each other.

Carrel was already asking if an external blood pump couldn't sustain the body while he operated on the heart. Lindbergh studied the problem and quietly went off to the Princeton University glass blower. Two weeks later he came back with his own blood pump. Carrel was delighted and invited Lindbergh to continue work in his laboratory.

Lindbergh did. He produced a series of pumps that didn't quite work. In 1935, after his son was kidnapped and murdered, he finally produced a working blood pump. He also produced a lot of the supporting technology. He'd made a centrifuge to separate blood plasma without damaging it.

Carrel sang the praises of the work. Here he is with Lindbergh on the cover of a 1938 Time magazine, admiring the pump. The press wrote about transplants and implants and the medical miracles right around the corner. Maybe the pump itself could be miniaturized and used to replace the human heart.

Then WW-II began, and both men walked away from the technology. Most of the pumps were broken up for the platinum in them. During the war, Carrel died of heart failure. Lindbergh flew combat missions in the Pacific.

Today the artificial heart is a reality. But it embodies a technology that was given its jump-start by that strange and unexpected pair of pioneers, Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hallowell, C., Charles Lindbergh's Artificial Heart. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1985