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John Heysham Gibbon - Medical Doctor With a Penchant for Engineering

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John Heysham Gibbon created a heart-lung machine that led to the first successful open-heart bypass surgery. In the process, this medical doctor who had a talent for engineering saved countless lives.

John H. Gibbon was born on 29 September 1903, to a prominent Philadelphia family and was a sixth-generation physician (one of his great-uncles was Brigadier General John Gibbon of Gettysburg fame, while another was a brigade surgeon for the Confederacy at that same battle). Gibbon graduated from Princeton University in 1923 and the Jefferson Medical College in 1927. After completing his residency at the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1929, he began a research fellowship at Harvard. In October 1930, he was part of a team carrying out emergency surgery on a young patient with a blood clot in her lungs. Although the patient died, Gibbon noted that if they could keep blood oxygenated during lung procedures, many other patients could be saved.

In 1933, despite the lack of an engineering background, he began work on an artificial heart-lung machine. He soon married his talented laboratory assistant, Mary Gibbon, who became his close research collaborator. They returned to Philadelphia in 1936, where John took the position of Harrison Fellow of Surgical Research at the University of Pennsylvania. They continued their research there by experimenting on dogs and cats. Though progress was visible, it was slow.

In 1942, John Gibbon left his family and his promising research to enlist in the Army. He served with distinction in the China-Burma-India Theater. Upon his return in 1946, he joined Jefferson Medical School’s faculty and settled in to continue his laborious research.

Soon afterward, Gibbon made the social acquaintance of one Thomas J. Watson, Sr., CEO of International Business Machines (IBM), then just establishing itself as the premier computer research, development and manufacturing firm. Watson, who was trained as an engineer, expressed interest in the heart-lung machine project, and Gibbon explained his ideas in detail. Shortly thereafter, a team of IBM engineers arrived at Jefferson Medical College to work with Gibbon. By 1949, they had a working machine — the Model I — that Gibbon could try on humans. The first patient, a 15-month old baby girl with severe heart failure, did not survive the procedure, but an autopsy revealed an unexpected congenital heart defect. By the time Gibbon identified a second likely patient, the team had developed the Model II. The second operation, on 18-year-old Cecelia Bavolek, was a complete success. By 1954, the team had developed an improved Model III.

In 1955, however, IBM underwent a review of its research organization. By 1956, Thomas Watson, Jr., had succeeded his father as CEO and IBM, well on its way to dominating the fledgling computer industry, was eliminating many of its non-core programs. The engineering team was withdrawn from Philadelphia and the field of biomedical devices — now a huge business — was left to Medtronic, Hewlett-Packard and others.

John Gibbon continued service as Chief of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College, wrote the standard textbook on chest surgery, and taught and mentored countless successful physicians. Upon his death on 5 February, 1973, Jefferson Medical College renamed its newest building after him.