In January 1982 surgeons at the University of Utah implanted the first permanent artificial heart into Barney Clark, a 61-year-old dentist from Seattle who was hours from death as he went into the operating room. He would live another 112 days. The work was a triumph for Willem Kolff, founder of the university’s Division of Artificial Organs and head of the team that developed Clark’s new heart. Yet in the weeks that followed the surgery, Kolff’s name began to be left out of the frantic media coverage. Nearly three decades later he has been all but forgotten. Perhaps he should have named the heart after himself.
Kolff was already one of the world’s foremost inventors of artificial organs when he moved in 1967 from the Cleveland Clinic to Utah. Ten years earlier he had invented the first working artificial kidney; that same year he began work on a heart. At Utah, Kolff led a team of more than 200 doctors and scientists who were pushing to advance the field of artificial organs. In 1971 he hired Robert Jarvik, a budding researcher in biomechanics who seemed to have a knack for engineering. Jarvik began medical school the next year and continued to work on improving the heart through his graduation in 1976.