In its 100-year history, General Motors has made significant contributions to society extending far beyond the automobile industry. One of these important contributions was the development of the first mechanical heart pump in 1952.
Dr. Forest Dodrill, a surgeon at Wayne State University's Harper Hospital in Detroit, believed that a machine could be developed to temporarily replace the human heart's blood-pumping function and make open heart surgery possible. Dr. Dodrill and his medical team called on a group of scientists and engineers at the GM Research Laboratories for help.
That unique collaboration resulted in the Dodrill-GMR Mechanical Heart, built by GM Research Laboratories in the public interest and funded in part by the American Heart Association. Measuring 10 by 12 by 17 inches, the invention looked similar to a 12-cylinder engine with six separate chambers. Made of stainless steel, glass and rubber, the mechanical heart used air pressure and vacuum pumps to circulate blood from the chambers through the patient's body while open heart surgery was being performed.
In the fall of 1952 the heart pump was first used successfully during a surgery performed on a 41-year-old man. The operation lasted 80 minutes and the mechanical heart was used for 50 minutes to keep the patient alive while his heart was repaired.
"We've come a long way since that first heart operation by Dodrill in 1952. Now, it's estimated that worldwide more than one million open heart operations are done using some form of heart-lung machine each year," said Dr. Larry Stephenson, Wayne State University cardiothoracic surgeon and medical historian, in a press release in 2002. "Without some form of blood pump or heart-lung machine, many of the heart operations we routinely do would not be possible."
The success of the Dodrill-GMR Mechanical Heart began a wave of research and medical advances that continue to this day.