By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)
Only in the sky is there hope. Only in that which man has never touched and which God forbid that he ever will.
When Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris in May 1927 he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but Lindbergh was not one to stay grounded for long.
Over the next four decades “Lucky Lindy” would soar far beyond the aviation field making important contributions to conservation and even biomedical research in the U.S. Navy.
Lindbergh’s foray in medical research began after his sister-in-law suffered damage to her heart’s mitral valve following a bout with rheumatic fever. Seeking a cure he sought out Dr. Alexis Carrel of the Rockefeller Institute in New York, the leading organ and tissue researcher of the day.
Throughout the 1930s, both men collaborated on a machine that could pump circulating blood through the body while a heart was repaired. This “perfusion pump” was a glass apparatus that supplied nutrients to the organ, using an elaborate pump system designed by Lindbergh. In essence, Carrel and Lindbergh developed the first artificial heart. Their work became the subject of their book The Culture of Organs. Both would share the cover of Time Magazine on June 13, 1938, however World War II and the death of Dr. Carrel in 1944 would put the project on hold.
A chance encounter at the Army-Navy Club in April 1965, between Lindbergh and Lt. Vernon Perry, of the Navy Tissue Bank in Bethesda, Maryland pumped new life into the artificial heart. Perry recruited Lindbergh as a “Guest Scientist.” Over the next three years Lindbergh commuted regularly between his home in Darien, Connecticut and Bethesda to work on improving his perfusion pump.
In Lindbergh, Perry not only got a talented engineer and a famous face for the project, but also a tireless worker. Perry would later recall, “His industry in the laboratory was overwhelming; he had the ability to work around the clock. His younger colleagues accustomed to a more normal 12 to 14 hours at the bench soon gave way. When we were forced to retreat from exhaustion, he would carry on, monitoring the apparatus, answering our phone calls, and writing in his journal. When we, after a good sleep, would next see him, he was as fresh as we and would comment that he had caught ‘a few winks here and there,’ probably expressed in this manner in an effort to reduce our own humiliation.”
Ultimately the Lindbergh-Perry collaboration led to improvements to the original pump, two publications, and new hope for those whose lives depended on organ transplantations.
Charles Lindbergh Collection. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Archives.