Brayer, Ralph. "The Promise That Failed," New York Times Magazine, 28 August 1988, pp.
Here is a very brief history of the artificial heart. This appeared but a short time after NIH had
decided to put its money on the "left ventricle assist" device rather than the implantables. That
decision resulted in political interference from Orrin Hatch of Utah (where the Jarvik heart was
initially developed) and from Ted Kennedy. The NIH has restored funds for now, but it is clear
that the development of the implantables is dead.
Some of the story can be told: when Barney Clark (the first recipient of the Jarvik device) got his
heart, there were obvious difficulties. There were shady ethics, huge potential profits, conflicts of
interest, and so on. But the press gave the artificial heart a great deal of media attention and wrote
of the work of William DeVries and Robert Jarvik. That was in 1983. Barney Clark died 112
days after his surgery and, for those days, one can legitimately ask, "What was the quality of his
life?" It is difficult to answer that question, especially since the procedures used were clinical
rather than experimental and we learned little from his torture.
Three other patients have been treated with the Jarvik-7: Schroeder, Haydon and Burcham. All
experienced great difficulty. The device caused rejection, was a source of chronic infection,
caused unregulated variation in blood pressure which led to strokes, and otherwise did a great
deal of damage to the patient. In other words, the device didn't work. Yet it got the media hype
while, simultaneously, the inventor and the hospital in which the patient was confined stood to
profit enormously from the technological development of the successful heart. There were big
bucks involved and it looks as if medical decisions may have been made in terms of those
This article makes it abundantly clear that ethically the situation is confused. Information, if not
outright suppressed, has been withheld from the public. The public did not learn of the enormous
difficulties with the heart. DeVries has left Utah and moved in with Humana Corporation, a very
much for-profit medical corporation with plans to develop the procedure further.
DeVries has not been the only showman in this era of heart surgery. One can go back to
Christiaan Barnard to see how the game is played. This author suggests that media hype is a
function of Americans' fear of death, denial of death, and so on, rather than a function of the
medical profession or the media themselves.