1956

Surgery Pioneers


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On August 1, 1956, a UW team of physicians and surgeons led by K. Alvin Merendino successfully performed the Pacific Northwest's first open-heart surgery. The procedure was performed at King County Hospital (now Harborview Medical Center) in Seattle. Merendino is viewed as one of the forefathers of American cardiothoracic surgery.

During the open-heart procedure, a bubble oxygenator was used to replace lung function. The technology was perfected by a team that included Wayne Quinton (see Pioneers in Kidney Dialysis), Merendino, and others in the experimental surgery program. Several oxygenators had been tried at other medical centers, but none was entirely satisfactory. The UW design proved durable; and oxygenators that function on the same principle are now widely used for open-heart procedures elsewhere. Merendino was assisted in the surgery by George I. Thomas and Richard X. Maquire. Betty Wax served as surgical nurse, and John Fesseph and Paul Herron ran the pump oxygenator.footnote 1

UW surgery professor David Dillard pioneered open-heart surgery for children in the late 1950s. One of Dr. Merendino's early protégés, Dillard began the pediatric cardiac surgical program at Children's Hospital in Seattle. His development of deep hypothermia techniques for performing pediatric cardiac surgery laid the foundation for modern cardiac surgery procedures. Many variations on local and systemic hypothermia are practiced around the world today with almost all forms of heart surgery, largely thanks to the unique contributions made by Dillard. His laboratory made significant contributions to the cryobiology literature in general.

Dillard also was involved in developing the first arteriovenous shunt designed to provide access for chronic kidney dialysis (see Pioneers in Kidney Dialysis). On another front, Henry Harkins was responsible for developing the principle of selective vagotomy for the surgical treatment of peptic ulcer disease.footnote 2

The University of Washington has a long history of "firsts" in the field of organ transplantation. UW surgery professor Thomas Marchioro introduced both kidney and lung transplantation to the Pacific Northwest. More recently, James D. Perkins, who directs the Division of Transplantation in the UW School of Medicine, led a team that performed the first liver transplant in the WAMI region (the states of Washington, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) (see WAMI: A New Concept in Medical Education and Rural Health Care). The procedure was performed on a college student in the Spokane area. Assisting in the operation were Drs. Marsh, Pohlman, and Cheung, and Scrub Nurse Bev Nass.

Perkins also led the team that performed the first pancreas transplant in the WAMI Region in June, 1990. Again, Marsh and Nass participated. That same year, Perkins and colleagues also performed the first pediatric liver transplant in the Pacific Northwest. In 1991, they performed the first reduced liver transplant--that is, they took a large adult liver, removed part of it, and transplanted the part into a child at Children's Hospital in Seattle. These are just a few examples of a much larger array of procedures carried out for the first time in the region by UW medical school faculty members.footnote 3


  1. From a history of the UW Department of Surgery by John K. Stevenson.
  2. Information provided by Dr. Carlos A. Pellegrini, UW Professor and Chair of Surgery, is gratefully acknowledged.
  3. Information provided by James D. Perkins is greatly appreciated.

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