Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974)
By any stretch of the imagination Charles Lindbergh was a complex character.
He is best known for his solo, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 from Long Island to Paris in a single-engine plane called Spirit of America. Tragedy befell him in 1932 when his son, Charles Junior, was kidnapped and subsequently murdered in what was described by H L Mencken as “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
Returning from self-imposed exile in Europe in 1935 to the States in 1939 and until the Pearl Harbour attack took a prominent anti-interventionist stance, attracting a public rebuke from President Roosevelt and allegations of fascist sympathies. Once he engaged with the war effort he put his undoubted aviatic acumen to good use, flying over fifty combat missions during the war against Japan in the Pacific region. For the rest of his life he was dogged by allegations of being a eugenist and a philanderer.
But the reason why Lindbergh is nominated for our illustrious Hall of Fame is for his now little-remembered involvement in the development of heart surgery and, in particular, the perfusion pump.
Our story begins in 1930 when Lindbergh’s sister-in-law developed a heart condition which proved to be fatal. It set him wondering why it was not possible to repair defects in the body’s major organ surgically. He was introduced to the Nobel Prize winning surgeon, Alexis Carrell, who was working on methods to keep organs alive outside of the body. In fact, Carrell had developed a nutrient-rich fluid that did the trick but lacked the technological know-how to ensure that the organ was continuously exposed to oxygenated blood, a process known as perfusion.
This is where Lindbergh came in.
By May 1931 he had advanced sufficiently to publish in one of the shortest ever articles to appear in the journal, Science, details of a device which circulated fluid constantly through a closed system. It created little attention.
By 1935 Lindbergh had come up with a solution to Carrell’s problem, a glass pump, consisting of three chambers or, to use his own words, “an apparatus, which maintains, under controllable conditions, a pulsating circulation of sterile fluid through organs for a length of time limited only by the changes in the organs and in the perfusion fluid.”
The use of glass was critical and Lindbergh used a form of pyrex, as other materials were found to cause blood clots and other complications. The heart was placed in a slanting tube and the carotid artery was connected to a second, small glass tube. Air pressure would force Carrell’s nutritious fluid from a lower chamber through the tube and artery to the heart, gravity then taking over and forcing it back down to the lower chamber. There were no moving parts.
There was one problem; the absence of a filter, an ersatz kidney, meant that the organ’s secretion mixed with the fluid from the perfusion pump, requiring it to be changed frequently. Nonetheless, the duo carried out a public demonstration of their pump on 5th April 1935, perfusing a cat’s thyroid gland which, after eighteen days, was still healthy and, more importantly, alive and replicating.
The public response to this breakthrough was phenomenal. It was described as “the fountain of old age” and some speculated that Lindbergh’s contribution would earn him more fame than his aeronautical achievements. They even graced the cover of Time magazine in July 1935. The press hysteria forced him to flee to Europe.
Over the next four years nearly a thousand trials of the pump were carried out and it never malfunctioned, although the absence of a filter continued to pose the threat of contamination. It was a star exhibit of the World Fair in New York in 1939.
But only around twenty of the pumps were ever produced. What went wrong?
It was tricky to use and attaching the artery to the glass tube was difficult. It was too easy to tear or damage the artery, making the organ to which it was attached unusable. By 1940 it was abandoned.
But it became the forerunner of surgical devices such as the heart-lung machine and gave surgeons a methodology to work on to stop the heart during an operation.
But Lindbergh is best known these days for other things.
If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone