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Bullitt History of Medicine Club: Artificial Hearts: A Controversial Medical Technology and Its Sensational Patient Cases from Haskell Karp to Dick Cheney
October 15, 2019 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Artificial Hearts: A Controversial Medical Technology and Its Sensational Patient Cases from Haskell Karp to Dick Cheney
Shelley McKellar, PhD, Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
Today artificial hearts are a clinical reality after decades of contentious development. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told reporters that it ‘saved his life’ when asked about living with an artificial heart device for 20 months in 2010-2012. But not all artificial heart implant patients, like Haskell Karp and Barney Clark, enjoyed such successful recoveries.
In this presentation, McKellar examines the clinical use of artificial hearts since the 1960s, situating the triumphant narrative of this technology and its ‘resurrectionist capacity’ alongside technical device challenges and difficult patient experiences. Who would not want a life-saving, off-the-shelf device fix for a loved one dying of heart failure? The appeal was the promissory nature of artificial hearts as a life-sustaining treatment, a medical technology that might alter the usual course of events that when a person’s heart failed, that person died.
McKellar argues that desirability—rather than feasibility or practicality of artificial hearts—drove the development of this technology. Artificial hearts were (and are) an imperfect technology, and its controversial history speaks to questions of expectations, limitations and uncertainty in a high-technology medical world.
Shelley McKellar, PhD is the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University. She is also a Full Professor in the Department of History at Western University. She earned her PhD degree in History from the University of Toronto, after which she worked on a documentary history project at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and then she accepted her academic position at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.
Her research focuses on the history of surgery, medical technology and the material culture of medicine. She is the author of several books and articles: her first book, entitled Surgical Limits, is a biography of Canadian surgeon Gordon Murray, one of Canada’s most prominent and controversial surgeons, who was also dubbed Canada’s ‘blue baby doctor’ for fixing congenital heart malformations in the era before open-heart surgery; she co-authored the book Medicine and Technology in Canada, 1900-1950, which highlights medical devices and practices in Canada, such as insulin, TB x-ray screening, and the use of iron lungs. Her most recent book, Artificial Hearts: The Allure and Ambivalence of a Controversial Medical Technology published by Johns Hopkins University Press, traces the potential and promise of this medical technology from the 1950s to present day.
At Western University, she teaches history of disease courses that focus on epidemic outbreaks and social response to history students in the Faculty of Social Science. She also teaches the history of medicine, the medical profession, and related historical aspects of ‘doctoring’ to medical students in the medical school at Western University. She is also curator of the Medical Artifact Collection at Western – a small research and teaching university collection – that allows her to play with amputation saws, toothkeys, bloodletting instruments and more with her students.