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Orvan W. Hess

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Biography

Orvan W. Hess was an obstetrician and gynecologist known for developing the fetal heart monitor, which, along with ultrasound, has become the most important technology in obstetrics.

Hess was born in 1906 in rural Margaretville, New York. He went to Lafayette College and earned his medical degree from the University of Buffalo. He was a fellow and clinical instructor at Yale medical school. During his fellowship in the 1930s, Hess began researching techniques for tracking fetal heart activity. In 1942, he conducted an early experiment with penicillin, using an injection to save an obstetrics patient from scarlet fever.

When American forces entered World War II, Hess served in General George S. Patton’s army as a front-line hospital surgeon. He returned to Yale in 1949. He and Dr. Edward Hon, a postdoctoral fellow, were the first to detect and record electrical cardiac signals using a six and a half foot tall machine. Through the 1960s, he improved this technology by introducing telemetry and reducing its size.

Fetal heart monitors have been credited with reducing the number of stillbirths. Before, doctors could not determine if a fetus was in distress. They were limited to using stethoscopes, which picked up both the fetal and the maternal heartbeat and could not accurately gauge fetal heartbeats when the mother was having contractions. Fetal heart monitors allowed for far more careful measurements during delivery. They also allowed hospitals to run more efficiently, because nurses could observe more than one patient at a time.

In 1979, the American Medical Association presented Hess with a scientific achievement award for his contributions to clinical research. He served as president of the Connecticut State Medical Society and directed health services for Connecticut’s Welfare Department, helping to implement Medicaid and Medicare during its early years.