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Photo of C. Walton Lillehei.

U alumnus and faculty member C. Walton Lillehei was often called the "father of open-heart surgery."

Lillehei Heart Institute continues namesake's legacy

By Andrea J. Peterson

From eNews, December 2, 2004

Fifty years ago at the University of Minnesota, something happened that had never been done before. On March 26, 1954, C. Walton Lillehei and his colleagues--Drs. Morley Cohen, Herb Warden, and Richard Varco--hooked up the circulatory system of a one-year-old boy with a heart defect to that of his father, essentially using the father as a heart-lung machine to keep his son alive while open-heart surgery was performed successfully to correct the defect.

While this was not the world's first open-heart surgery--that had been performed two years before, also at the University of Minnesota, by F. John Lewis and his colleagues--Lillehei's innovative use of cross-circulation was the crucial link in the evolution of open-heart surgery to what is now a safe, routine procedure performed hundreds of times a day around the world.

Lillehei's legacy of innovation in cardiovascular surgery and medicine was captured in 2001 when the University established the Lillehei Heart Institute--through a generous gift from his wife, Kaye Lillehei.

"Part of our mission is education, but it's not simply to train the next group of itinerant doctors," says Leslie Miller, the institute's associate director. "We feel our job is to truly inspire the next generation and instill in them that same pioneering spirit we have received from Dr. Lillehei."

The institute's interdisciplinary nature is aimed at fostering greater creativity and collaboration among University researchers, leading to more rapid discoveries and innovations.

"We have programs in the Lillehei Heart Institute that are intentionally multidisciplinary and cross not only disciplines within the Medical School, but also in the Institute of Technology and in the entire Academic Health Center, including public health, nursing, pharmacy, and others," says R. Morton Bolman, institute director. "We are able to perform sophisticated, basic research without having to duplicate facilities. There was already a lot of interesting cardiovascular research being conducted across the University, and the Lillehei Heart Institute brings it together in a more formal manner."

Today's innovations The medical landscape has changed significantly since Lillehei's day. "We're focusing on specific areas such as heart failure and transplant and pediatric heart disease," explains Bolman. "One of the things we do is very sophisticated valve repair surgery that is relatively unique in the community... we've also continued to lead the way in pediatric heart disease, which is really where it started with Dr. Lillehei's initial efforts to correct very simple defects in the hearts of infants and small children."

While the Lillehei Heart Institute will continue to support advancements in these current areas of expertise, new areas of research and exploration have emerged. University surgeons have begun performing heart surgery with a surgical robot and are exploring cell-based therapies for myocardial repair.

To learn more about the Lillehei Heart Institute, see

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