Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Medical History

Artificial Hearts

The Allure and Ambivalence of a Controversial Medical Technology

by (author) Shelley McKellar

Johns Hopkins University Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2018
History, Cardiology, Ethics, Medical Technology, Thoracic
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2018
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


A comprehensive history of the development of artificial hearts in the United States.

Artificial hearts are seductive devices. Their promissory nature as a cure for heart failure aligned neatly with the twentieth-century American medical community’s view of the body as an entity of replacement parts. In Artificial Hearts, Shelley McKellar traces the controversial history of this imperfect technology beginning in the 1950s and leading up to the present day.

McKellar profiles generations of researchers and devices as she traces the heart’s development and clinical use. She situates the events of Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley’s professional fall-out after the first artificial heart implant case in 1969, as well as the 1982–83 Jarvik-7 heart implant case of Barney Clark, within a larger historical trajectory. She explores how some individuals—like former US Vice President Dick Cheney—affected the public profile of this technology by choosing to be implanted with artificial hearts. Finally, she explains the varied physical experiences, both negative and positive, of numerous artificial heart recipients.

McKellar argues that desirability—rather than the feasibility or practicality of artificial hearts—drove the invention of the device. Technical challenges and unsettling clinical experiences produced an ambivalence toward its continued development by many researchers, clinicians, politicians, bioethicists, and the public. But the potential and promise of the artificial heart offset this ambivalence, influencing how success was characterized and by whom. Packed with larger-than-life characters—from dedicated and ardent scientists to feuding Texas surgeons and brave patients—this book is a fascinating case study that speaks to questions of expectations, limitations, and uncertainty in a high-technology medical world.

About the author

Shelley McKellar is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario. She is the author of Surgical Limits: The Life of Gordon Murray and the coauthor of Medicine and Technology in Canada, 1900–1950.

Shelley McKellar's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"A fine piece of work by a gifted historian of science that will most certainly stand out as a go-to source for those interested in a detailed history of surgical and bioengineering efforts to replace flawed, fleshy human hearts with those of mechanical design."

Social History of Medicine

"McKellar presents a compelling history of the development of artificial hearts from the 1950s to the present. Her account underscores the tension between the public's infatuation with and wariness of a controversial technology... McKellar’s engaging, thoroughly documented historical account will appeal to general readers, students, and academic professionals."


"Artificial Hearts is an excellent contribution to our knowledge about the search for a high-technology solution to end-stage cardiac disease. By grounding that pursuit within a decades-long historical context, Shelley McKellar shows how those undertaking this highstakes endeavour fought for and gained authority, funding and public acclaim in the face of others' scepticism that an artificial heart might, one day, be the perfect substitute for the real thing."

Medical History

"This book is far more than an inward-looking recitation of advance followed by advance. McKellar draws effectively on sociological and anthropological literature to explore the myriad controversies that accompanied the artificial heart's development. She tells us much about physicians, but also a bit about patients. The technological story is nicely imbedded within a changing social and economic context. And the story is a fascinating one."

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Shelley McKellar, a historian of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, offers a detailed study of social, cultural, and economic forces that propelled a series of "seductive devices": artificial hearts that fell short of expectations."

New York Review of Books

"This book represents a very interesting and complete discussion of very important advances in therapies to save the "sickest of the sick" patients with heart failure, documenting both triumphs and failures, the necessary collaborations, the courageous patients, and innovative outsized physicians and surgeons involved in these efforts and how other therapies such as cardiac transplantation and ventricular assist devices developed as a result of the quest for the artificial heart. Anyone who wants to know where we have been and where we are going in this field should read this book."

American Journal of Transplantation

"Artificial Hearts takes its place alongside, and in many respects surpasses, standard history of medical technology monographs... [McKellar's] historiographical perspective... will establish Artificial Hearts as the definitive text on the subject up to this point."

Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

Other titles by