Jarvik-7: The First Successful Artificial Heart

The 1980s brought many valuable discoveries and innovations to the world. Without many of these inventions, life may have been far different from what it is today. One of the 80s greatest products in science was the invention of Jarvik-7, the first successful artificial heart implanted on a human being. While it didn’t reach its purpose as a “permanent” replacement, it became used as a temporary heart, prolonging and saving many human lives. In this article, let’s know more about Jarvik-7 and the story behind its fascinating development.

The “Human Heart”

The human heart is one of the marvels of the human body. It beats over a hundred thousand times a day, pumps over 16,000 liters or 4,300 gallons of blood each day, and transports it through a 97,000 kilometer-long or 60,000 miles network of blood vessels. Though it’s only slightly larger than a fist, it acts as an engine room, supplying the body with blood filled with oxygen and necessary nutrients while freeing it from harmful waste products. Thus, it is among the most essential and significant organs, making life sustainable.

The Need for the Artificial Heart

While the heart seems powerful, it’s vulnerable to different chronic conditions and diseases, which considerably rose in the past decades. In fact, coronary heart disease became the leading cause of death in the 20th century. It affected both men and women from many wealthy industrialized countries, primarily brought by the enormous changes in diet and lifestyle.

The majority of these deaths were “preventable” through the administration of intensive care and surgical approaches like heart transplant operations. However, the lack of donor hearts and the risk of transplant rejection, in which the receiver’s immune system attacks the donor organ and ultimately tries to eliminate it, affected patients’ survivability. Such problems pushed many scientists and doctors to develop a mechanical device equivalent to or similar to the heart to replicate the heart’s function.

The Quest for the Artificial Heart

The history of the first artificial heart starts in 1937 after Dr. Vladimir P. Demikhov developed the first total artificial heart and performed the first experimental coronary artery bypass operation and intrathoracic transplantation. The Soviet scientist became the pioneer of organ transplantation, and his achievements signaled the advent of further developments and successes in the field.

Like most innovations in the medical field, the device was implanted in an animal. The first total artificial heart was transplanted into a dog, who then lived nearly six hours after the operation. In 1946 and 1949, he performed heart-lung transplants, again with dogs, which proved to be another landmark in his career and the field. Despite such a feat, however, Demikhov is still widely renowned for his head transplants on dogs.

In the West, Dr. John H. Gibbon, Jr. developed the passion for creating the first heart-lung machine, a device that takes the functions of the heart and lungs during operations. He worked on the apparatus from the 1930s, eventually inventing the first successful heart-lung apparatus used on a human in 1953. 

In 1957, Willem Johan Kolff continued to test the implantation of artificial hearts on animals. One of the dogs lived for around 90 minutes. In 1963, Paul Winchell held the first patent for the artificial heart he developed through the help of Dr. Henry Heimlich, but his creation was never used. A few years later, Winchell passed his patent rights to Dr. Kolff to the University of Utah after accepting the university’s request.

The first successful human heart transplant happened in 1967. Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the operation in South Africa for the 53-year old patient Louis Washkansky, who died 18 days after the procedure. Two years later, Texas Heart Institute’s Dr. Dentoy Cooley conducted the first implantation of an artificial heart to a human. The patient had a heart transplant nearly three days later but died 32 hours after the operation.

Going back to 1967, Dr. Kolff established the University of Utah’s Division of Artificial Organs. Three prominent individuals joined his team, with each assigned to a specific project. Veterinarian Dr. Don Olsen handled the animal implants. Medical engineer Dr. Robert Jarvik was tasked to design various artificial hearts, while surgeon Dr. William DeVries led the shift from animal implantations to human implantations.

The endeavor led to more tests on animals. In 1973, the Kolff Total Artificial Heart (TAH) was implanted on a calf. Calf “Tony” survived 30 days after the surgery. In 1975, Jarvik 5 TAH was implanted on another calf and lived for six months. The same device was used for “Alfred Lord Tennyson,” another calf, who lived longer at nearly nine months. With such promise gained after the animal trials, Dr. DeVries forwarded his request and asked permission from FDA in 1981 to implant a total artificial heart into a human subject – one that was meant to last a lifetime.


On December 2, 1982, Barney Clark became the first individual to receive the Jarvik-7 artificial heart in an operation performed by Dr. DeVries. Jarvik-7 was the first “true” artificial heart designed for permanent use. However, the heart was attached to a gigantic external pneumatic compressor, which meant that the patient was meant to be hospital-bound in his lifetime.

Clark lived for 112 days on the mechanical heart. The 61-year old Seattle dentist, who was already suffering from congestive heart failure, said he volunteered to help further advance science. The ground-breaking surgery wasn’t easy for Clark as he suffered from bleeding and confusion most of the time. William Schroeder became the second individual to receive the Jarvik-7 as a permanent replacement heart. He has a better experience than Clark and survived for 620 days before succumbing to a lung infection.

Today, the search for the permanent total artificial heart is still on. Yet, the advances brought by the Jarvik-7 is valuable as it led to the use of artificial hearts as a temporary fix for patients. Though it’s not a viable long-term solution, these mechanical organs help buy time, serving as a bridge to heart transplants as patients wait for any donor available.