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The 25th Anniversary of Barney Clark's Artificial Heart

On December 1st, 1982, surgeons at the University of Utah Medical Center placed a plastic and aluminum heart in Barney Clark, a Seattle dentist with severe congestive heart failure. The world watched intently to see whether Clark would immediately die or be able to survive tethered to a 400-pound machine.

When Clark woke up from the surgery, very much alive, reporters compared the operation to the 19th- century novel “Frankenstein,” in which a scientist animates a dead body. Indeed, the fact that an artificial heart could pump blood as efficiently as a natural heart was a remarkable achievement.

But the remainder of Clark's life was extremely difficult. During the 112 days that he survived, he underwent four additional operations, had several episodes of bleeding, and experienced prolonged periods of confusion. He even asked to die on several occasions.

Was Clark a victim or a hero? Probably both. In retrospect, the University of Utah, in its eagerness to build a better artificial heart, allowed Clark to enter the experiment before enough animal testing had been done. And from a medical perspective, Clark's preexisting lung disease probably made him a poor candidate.

But Clark very much knew that he was entering uncharted waters. He hoped to benefit from the device, but also knew it might not help him at all. On numerous occasions, he stated that he was undergoing the experiment for the benefit of medical science.

Clark's name may not be widely remembered now but for 112 days, the world watched a man--and his especially dignified and impressive family—tackle a new medical frontier. As in so many other cases, the road proved more rocky than smooth.

Barron H. Lerner, MD, PhD
Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Author of "When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients
and How We Look at Medicine" (Johns Hopkins, 2006)

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