Remembering Barney Clark, Whose Ethically Questionable Heart Transplant Advanced Science

SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | Kat Eschner

Three decades ago, a dentist agreed to receive the first artificial heart. And then things went downhill

A Jarvik-7 artificial heart in the Smithsonian's collection. (National Museum of American History)
Dr. Barney B. Clark was dying.

He was 61, a dentist from Seattle, whose congestive heart failure meant he had trouble walking from bedroom to bathroom, writes Tony Long for Wired. He was so sick, in fact, that he was ineligible for a heart transplant. His last hope, such as it was: the newly FDA-approved Jarvik 7.

The plastic and metal contraption was intended to replace his failing heart and do what it could not. With the understanding that his long-term survival chances were almost zero, Long writes, Clark agreed to undergo the transplant in the interests of science.

On December 2, 1982, Clark became the world’s first recipient of an artificial heart.

He lived for another 112 days, his heart powered by a dishwasher-sized air compressor that he was permanently tethered to, writes Clyde Haberman for the New York Times. In those days, suffering from the infections that made artificial organ transplant such a dicey proposition, he floated in and out of consciousness, Long writes, several times asking to be allowed to die. He had convulsions, kidney failure and memory lapses before his ultimate death, adds Haberman. Continue reading
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