When I was barely out of elementary school, I stumbled upon a curious edition of the works of William Harvey, the great seventeenth-century anatomist and discoverer of the circulation of the blood. It matters not that I grew up a tad squeamish of the sight of blood; my curiosity back then as I marveled at my first peek beneath human skin was like unto that of Harvey himself. I’ve often wondered, however, if Harvey realized what his curiosity was for, what his investigations could or would lead to.
They led to, among other things, the first complete artificial heart being implanted in a human being, in 1969, by Dr. Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute, who has died at the age of 96.
The risks Harvey took in cutting the body, looking inside, and describing what he saw were considerable. His inclinations ran counter to almost every social, scientific, and theological presupposition of his day, yet he indulged them. Back in 1969, Dr. Cooley also took a considerable risk, beyond the potential death of his patient. Although he had been working on artificial heart valves for over five years, there was significant skepticism about whether an artificial heart could function as a replacement for the entire biological organ. But Cooley took the intrepid adventure step by step. The first artificial heart functioned only long enough for a replacement biological heart to be found and implanted. In the next year, an artificial heart alone was used to extend the life of its recipient.
We who live in the twenty-first century owe both of these doctors an enormous debt for pushing back, in their own ways, the boundaries of knowledge and the prior limits of what it was thought possible that human beings could do. At stake in Harvey’s investigations, and in Cooley’s, was nothing less than life itself. As Harvey put it in De Motu Cordis, “The animal’s heart is the basis of its life, its chief member, the sun of its microcosm; on the heart all its activity depends, from the heart all its liveliness and strength arise. . .”
The two doctors were in agreement with each other on this fundamental point, and both men dedicated all of their knowledge and all of their enormous talents to extending the life of the common mortal body, not just because it appeared to be possible, but because the body itself appeared to them to be an object of extraordinary strength and remarkable grace, worthy of preservation at almost any price.