Portrait of Wilfred Bigelow

Portrait of Wilfred Bigelow by Irma Coucill

Irma Coucill
Permanent Collection of The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

© CHIN 2001


The development of a pacemaker by Wilfred Bigelow, John Callaghan and John Hopps is a story of a bold research programme with unexpected successes. Bigelow (a Canadian from Brandon, Manitoba) first became interested in the physiology of hypothermia, then saw an opportunity to apply this interest to open-heart surgery, which in turn stimulated the development of a heart pacemaker.

The development of a pacemaker by Wilfred Bigelow, John Callaghan and John Hopps is a story of a bold research programme with unexpected successes. Bigelow (a Canadian from Brandon, Manitoba) first became interested in the physiology of hypothermia, then saw an opportunity to apply this interest to open-heart surgery, which in turn stimulated the development of a heart pacemaker.

© CHIN 2001

Wilfred Bigelow’s innovations in open-heart surgery developed, curiously, out of an early interest in the relationship between frostbite and reduced blood circulation. Bigelow’s interest in hypothermia peaked while serving as a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in Europe in the Second World War. It was then he began to wonder if hypothermia (reduced body temperature) could actually be used beneficially in several surgical operations.

His idea was that if the human body temperature could be reduced to a point significantly below average body temperature, without physical or neurological harm, blood circulation could also be safely reduced. He reasoned that this cooling could help in preserving tissues of a limb in cases when an artery is severed, to buy time while the artery is surgically repaired. Bigelow did not have a chance to test his theory during the war.
Wilfred Bigelow’s innovations in open-heart surgery developed, curiously, out of an early interest in the relationship between frostbite and reduced blood circulation. Bigelow’s interest in hypothermia peaked while serving as a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in Europe in the Second World War. It was then he began to wonder if hypothermia (reduced body temperature) could actually be used beneficially in several surgical operations.

His idea was that if the human body temperature could be reduced to a point significantly below average body temperature, without physical or neurological harm, blood circulation could also be safely reduced. He reasoned that this cooling could help in preserving tissues of a limb in cases when an artery is severed, to buy time while the artery is surgically repaired. Bigelow did not have a chance to test his theory during the war.

© CHIN 2001

The same reasoning returned, though, after the war when Bigelow took a post-graduate fellowship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where he trained in vascular and cardiac surgery. There he witnessed how the potential of open-heart surgery was limited by the difficulties of operating on a heart that was full of blood and beating at full force. Bigelow suggested using general hypothermia as a means to lower oxygen requirements of the body, allowing the heart to be temporarily removed from general circulation. This would allow surgeons to open the heart and perform intracardiac surgery under direct vision.

Bigelow’s hunch would open the door to performing new and improved surgical procedures on the human heart. The first successful ""cold"" open-heart surgery was performed on a dog in 1950 at the Cardiovascular Laboratory in the Banting Research Institute in Toronto. The procedure was subsequently used in human surgical interventions at different North American hospitals. At the same time, research elsewhere on a heart-lung pump (another strategy to have blood circulation bypass the heart to allow for direct-vision heart surgery) was underway Read More
The same reasoning returned, though, after the war when Bigelow took a post-graduate fellowship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where he trained in vascular and cardiac surgery. There he witnessed how the potential of open-heart surgery was limited by the difficulties of operating on a heart that was full of blood and beating at full force. Bigelow suggested using general hypothermia as a means to lower oxygen requirements of the body, allowing the heart to be temporarily removed from general circulation. This would allow surgeons to open the heart and perform intracardiac surgery under direct vision.

Bigelow’s hunch would open the door to performing new and improved surgical procedures on the human heart. The first successful ""cold"" open-heart surgery was performed on a dog in 1950 at the Cardiovascular Laboratory in the Banting Research Institute in Toronto. The procedure was subsequently used in human surgical interventions at different North American hospitals. At the same time, research elsewhere on a heart-lung pump (another strategy to have blood circulation bypass the heart to allow for direct-vision heart surgery) was underway and eventually supplanted general hypothermia as a technique of open-heart surgery.

© CHIN 2001

During the course of their research on cold heart surgery, Bigelow's research team was frustrated by the occasional heart failure when a dog's body was cooled. Bigelow observed that by applying an electrical or mechanical stimulus to the sinoauricular node of the heart resulted in the production of normal beats.

Thus, in 1951 in collaboration with J.C. Callaghan (also of the Banting Institute) and J.A. Hopps (of the National Research Council of Canada), Bigelow organized a team to develop a device that could produce a regular electrical stimulus to the heart and act as an ""artificial pacemaker."" The idea was to achieve control of heart action for prolonged periods.

A few earlier developments in medicine had pointed to the possibility of a pacemaker, but it wasn't until 1953 that the technology spearheaded by the Toronto team permitted the pacemaker to become a real factor in a number of human surgical applications.

The use of the artificial pacemaker was intended to allow resuscitation if cardiac arrest occurred during surgical procedures. An electrode was inserted intravenously while the surgical procedure was completed an Read More
During the course of their research on cold heart surgery, Bigelow's research team was frustrated by the occasional heart failure when a dog's body was cooled. Bigelow observed that by applying an electrical or mechanical stimulus to the sinoauricular node of the heart resulted in the production of normal beats.

Thus, in 1951 in collaboration with J.C. Callaghan (also of the Banting Institute) and J.A. Hopps (of the National Research Council of Canada), Bigelow organized a team to develop a device that could produce a regular electrical stimulus to the heart and act as an ""artificial pacemaker."" The idea was to achieve control of heart action for prolonged periods.

A few earlier developments in medicine had pointed to the possibility of a pacemaker, but it wasn't until 1953 that the technology spearheaded by the Toronto team permitted the pacemaker to become a real factor in a number of human surgical applications.

The use of the artificial pacemaker was intended to allow resuscitation if cardiac arrest occurred during surgical procedures. An electrode was inserted intravenously while the surgical procedure was completed and the incision was closed, permitting the heart to beat under artificial control until spontaneous heart action resumed as the body returned to normal temperature.

Wilfred Bigelow's life's work was celebrated with an induction to The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1997.

© CHIN 2001

Bigelow’s motivations to develop the pacemaker for use in surgery

This is a video clip showing Bigelow's motivations to develop and test the pacemaker for surgery

"Dr. Bigelow’s key discovery in 1950, was how to lower the body’s oxygen requirements, while lowering the body’s core temperature to a point at which safe open-heart surgery was possible. This was first done successfully in 1952. The first open heart operation using the heart/lung pump was a year later. The two techniques were later combined."

The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

© CHIN 2001


J.C. Callaghan, W.G. Bigelow, and J. Hopps

J.C. Callaghan, W.G. Bigelow, and J. Hopps, celebrating the opening dedication of the Medtronics plant in Mississauga, ca. 1975.

Photo courtesy of University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1975
Photograph
© CHIN 2001


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Identify and appreciate the way history and culture shape a society’s science and technology
  • Describe scientific and technological developments, past and present, and appreciate their impact on individuals and societies
  • Describe how Canadians have contributed to science and technology on the global stage

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