The True Story of the Government Programs That Tried to Build an Atomic Heart

The Atlantic

View gallery

.
nuclear-poweredartificalheart.jpg

In 1967, the National Heart Institute and the Atomic Energy Agency began a ten-year effort to develop an artificial heart powered by plutonium-238. The atomic hearts would have pumped human blood with the energy provided by the radioactive decay of that isotope. The effort failed thanks to technical challenges, intra-governmental infighting, and the souring of the public mood about both medical devices and atomic energy, but it remains a fascinating episode at the confluence of two grand American dreams.

This is the story told by Shelley McKellar, who teaches the history of medicine at at the University of Western Ontario in the most recent issue of the quarterly journal Technology and Culture

The Federally funded programs continued for a decade, sometimes at cross-purposes, and they foreshadowed the rhetoric that came to surround later attempts at creating other types of artificial hearts in the 1980s. There are lessons to be learned, McKellar implies, about how people receive a particular technology changes along with the social and regulatory environment. Ideas that make sense one decade can seem totally ridiculous ten years later.

But, you might be asking yourself, "What in the hell was anyone even thinking trying to stick a radioisotope generator into a human being's chest cavity?"

Fair question.

If you take the goal for an artificial heart to be the true replacement of the human heart in perpetuity, then power becomes a primary concern, trumping all other engineering constraints. When contractors like Westinghouse Electric and McDonnell-Douglas offered bids for the government work, they made sure to note the atomic solution as the only possibility.

"Each proposal declared the radioisotope-powered engine as the only possible energy solution for a completely implantable device." McKellar explained. "The ideal implantable device meant no external lines or connections from the patient to outside power sources and a ten-year reliability span. By comparison, conventional batteries required recharging multiple times each day from an external source and would need to be explanted from patients every two years."

And, if you're a promoter of the value of radioisotopes in all things, then you might go looking for places where power is a primary concern. As one William Mott, who became the project coordinator the Atomic Energy Commission's atomic heart program put it, "We were always on the alert for new problems to match with our solutions."

Looking back, it's fascinating how confident the scientists of the time were that the engineering challenges of embedding a radioactivity-powered device into a body could be overcome. The NHI and AEC battled over the proper way of conducting the research: the NHI created a non-atomic intermediary device that they implanted into animals, while the AEC promoted an all-at-once design strategy. But both agencies saw the problems as fundamentally soluble.

With the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, we know that, so far at least, there is no "ideal implantable device." Total artificial hearts (as distinguished from heart assist devices) are, at best, a stopgap measure. They're used to as a last-ditch bridge measure while patients await transplants of other human hearts. We've learned a lot of other things about cardiology in the last 50 years, but one thing remains: nothing we can make comes close to working as well as your heart except another human heart.

That is to say: The craziest part of the atomic artificial heart program wasn't the atomic part. 

View gallery

.
atomicheartincalf.jpg




More From The Atlantic

Rates

View Comments (0)

Recommended for You

  • Tycoon buys 30 Rolls-Royces for Macau hotel

    A Hong Kong tycoon has placed the biggest ever order for Rolls-Royce cars, agreeing to buy 30 Phantoms to chauffeur guests at a luxury resort he's building in the global gambling capital of Macau. Stephen Hung's $20 million purchase surpasses the 14 Phantoms bought by Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel in…

    Associated Press
  • Enjoy this refreshing Triple Play offer!

    Get FIOS TV Mundo starting at $79.99/mo. w/ no annual contract + 2-yr. price guarantee. Or sign for 2 yrs. & get a $300 prepaid Visa. Click here.

    AdChoicesVerizon FiOS ®Sponsored
  • Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks

    Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks While investors gear up for Alibaba Group 's (BABA) hotly anticipated initial public offering, don't forget about other Chinese stocks that are worth keeping an eye on. Today's Young Guns Screen of

    Investor's Business Daily
  • Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia

    Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia MOSCOW (AP) — The arrest of a Russian telecoms and oil tycoon has sent shock waves through the country's business community, with some fearing a return to the dark days of a decade ago, when the Kremlin asserted its power by imprisoning the country's…

    Associated Press
  • "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savings

    "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savingsBy the time she hit her late 40s, Toni Eugenia wasn’t sure she would ever be able to retire. Eugenia, 56, a pharmacy technician who lived in Houston, was nearly $200,000 in debt and

    Yahoo Finance
  • Play

    Citi, Bank of America Offer Discounted Mortgages

    Citigroup and Bank of America will offer mortgages at discounted interest rates to help borrowers with low incomes or subprime credit. AnnaMaria Andriotis joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty.

    WSJ Live
  • Costco Stores in Canada to Stop Taking American Express

    “The credit card relationship between American Express and Costco Wholesale Canada will not be renewed when it expires” on Dec. 31, the company said today in an e-mail to Canadian customers. The message was attributed to Lorelle Gilpin, vice president of marketing and membership for Costco…

    Bloomberg
  • CNBC Anchor Calls Out Fed-Hater Bill Fleckenstein In Startling Shouting Match

    CNBC Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital appeared on CNBC's Futures Now program on Tuesday. Futures Now host Jackie DeAngelis came out swinging, asking Fleckenstein right at the top if he was willing to admit that he had misunderstood monetary policy. Sounding taken aback, Fleckenstein…

    Business Insider
  • Master's Degree in Nursing

    CCNE accredited MS in nursing in as few as 18 months online. Learn more today!

    AdChoicesNorwich UniversitySponsored
  • Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court

    Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court CHICAGO (AP) — Federal prosecutors seeking to put the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies in prison for hiding millions in Swiss bank accounts told appellate court judges Wednesday that the toymaker's sentence of probation threatens to erode the…

    Associated Press
  • As Fed takes baby steps, Cramer's trick for profit

    In turn, Cramer says making money in the market, involves looking at the environment through the lens of the Fed. "The trick is to remember that they speak for the common person," Cramer said. "The Fed wants the common person to make money." With that backdrop always in mind, Cramer says it becomes…

    CNBC
  • Apple to unveil new iPads, operating system on Oct. 21 : report

    The company plans to unveil the sixth generation of its iPad and the third edition of the iPad mini, as well as its operating system OS X Yosemite, which has undergone a complete visual overhaul, the Internet news website said. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment. The iPad is…

    Reuters
  • Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks

    Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks Gilead Sciences (GILD) shares are backsliding Wednesday on news that the patient drop-out rate for hepatitis C drug Sovaldi is quadruple that of clinical trials. In addition, the biotech's Phase 2 study results

    Investor's Business Daily
  • Margaritaville casino owners seek bankruptcy

    The owner of Biloxi's Margaritaville casino has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, only hours before a hearing where the landlord aimed to seize the property. The filing by MVB Holding LLC in U.S. Don Dornan, a lawyer for landlord Clay Point LLC, said the company had planned to ask…

    Associated Press
  • Don't care about Alibaba? Here's why it may matter

    When the Alibaba Group Holding prices its initial public offering Thursday, small businesses in particular will be watching. Founder Jack Ma -the former English-teacher-turned-dot-com billionaire-has touted his e-commerce platform as a way for smaller merchants to expand their international…

    CNBC
  • Norwich Information Security MS

    Online, accredited, top ranked. NSA Center of Academic Excellence. Recognized by the Department of Homeland Security. Download your free brochure!

    AdChoicesNorwich UniversitySponsored
  • Here's What Mark Cuban Wishes He Knew About Money In His 20s

    Cuban is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban is generous with his advice. When we asked him what he wishes he'd known about money in his 20s, he said:

    Business Insider
  • SHOE COMPANY: Our CEO Just Disappeared And Most Of The Money Is Gone

    "and like that: he's gone." This is an actual headline from a company press release: "CEO and COO disappeared, most of the company's cash missing." (Via FastFT) In a statement, German-based shoe company Ultrasonic said its CFO,  Chi Kwong Clifford Chan, has been unable to reach the company's CEO,…

    Business Insider
  • Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More

    Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More Stocks were firm on Wednesday morning ahead of the FOMC meeting outcome. Tuesday’s rally may have sparked higher interest again, and investors are looking for bargains

    24/7 Wall St.
  • Play

    Tues., Sept. 16: Watch Humana Stock

    Humana, Global X Social Media Index ETF and Majesco Entertainment are among stocks to watch. WSJ's Chris Dieterich discusses the details with Michael Casey. Photo: Humana

    WSJ Live
  • Boeing may have outfoxed Musk, but it could have bigger problems

    Elon Musk is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of the 21st Century, but he was outsized an old school aerospace giant. Boeing won the bulk of NASA’s contract for a space taxi.  One of the other companies vying for the deal is SpaceX, the company headed by Tesla’s Musk, will get a…

    Talking Numbers
  • Billionaire Investor Says Chinese People Work Harder And Western Companies Could Face Deep Trouble After Alibaba IPO

    Michael Moritz, the chairman of VC firm Sequoia Capital, is a huge fan of Chinese internet companies and reiterated his enthusiasm for the Chinese market in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. The billionaire investor described the Alibaba IPO as a “major landmark event” that is as…

    Business Insider
  • Wondering How You Could Save on Home Insurance?

    Get a quote from Farmers Insurance and discover how you could save. Speak with an agent to get the knowledge you need to make an informed decision.

    AdChoicesFarmers InsuranceSponsored
  • Don't buy Alibaba stock: 'Dean of Valuation'

    Investors should steer clear of Alibaba , valuation expert Aswath Damodaran said Wednesday. On CNBC's " Fast Money ," Damodaran, a professor of finance at New York University's Stern School of Business, noted that he was looking at Alibaba stock from the perspective of a long-term investor, not a…

    CNBC