Famous Names

Dr. C Walton Lillehei

This month, for the third edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” This month I will focus on the medical side of healthcare by recognizing a figure who contributed significantly to the treatment of cardiac conditions. I have been reading “The Heart Healers” by Dr. James Forrester and have loved his story telling manner when describing the history of cardiac surgery, so I decided to choose a notable figure outlined in the story as the focus for this month’s segment. This man is Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the father of open heart surgery.

In the years leading up to modern open heart surgery techniques, the field underwent many changes. Methods that were used in the 1950s are almost unfathomable by todays standards and ethics. However, it was in this time period that truly innovative (and dangerous) techniques were a long standing component in the quest for successful open heart surgery. Dr.Lillehei primarily focused on the yet-unsolved challenges to treating what were known as “blue babies,” or infants and children born with congenital heart defects that could not be repaired through medical treatment or closed heart surgery. These children often suffered symptoms of their disease without relief and were given the equivalent of a death sentence. While doctors could diagnose the conditions, they could do little to prevent the progression of the disease as structural problems in the heart failed to keep up with the demands of the patient’s growing body. Essentially, many of these children died due to an inability to efficiently pump blood to vital organs.

Dr.Lillehei was a pioneer in the development of heart-lung bypass systems and open heart surgery. In 1954, Dr. Lillehei performed the first successful open heat surgery using cross circulation with the father of the patient as the source of oxygenated blood. This method was used throughout numerous surgeries and put the “donor” at great risk of harm or injury, so the method was quickly abandoned as other forms of blood oxygenation developed. Dr.Lillehei was involved in the progression of open heart surgery methods moving forward. He helped implement the bubble oxygenator, hypothermia techniques, cardiac pacemakers and prosthetic heart valves. While some of these techniques are no longer used and the surgical devices he used have since undergone many changes to increase effectiveness, safety, and efficiency, Dr.Lillehei’s early involvement in cardiac care altered the trajectory of cardiac surgery, launching us into the future of medicine.

His career impacted many patients, medical staff, and physicians alike as he was active in academic and hospital administration positions throughout his career. After working as a surgeon at University of Minnesota Medical School , he served as the chairman of the department of surgery at Cornell University Medical Center and surgeon in chief at New York Hospital. He later returned to the University of Minnesota Medical Center and additionally served as chairman of the American College of Cardiology. The American Heart Association notes Dr.Lillehei’s lasting impact by stating, ” First- and second-generation Lillehei trainees have developed important techniques in transplantation, perfusion, coronary artery bypass, prosthetic valves, and congenital heart surgery.” This recognizes the lasting impact he had on cardiac surgery far beyond his own individual practice, research, and years of surgery.

Famous Names

John Snow

Welcome to the second edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” In this segment, I will give recognition to individuals who have made significant contributions to the fields of public health and medicine.

While Ygritte from “Game of Thrones” may disagree, it turns out that John Snow did know something. In fact, a man with the same moniker is credited as the father of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants health outcomes and diseases in a population.

John Snow lived in London in the 1850s, at a time when modern health practices didn’t exist. It was widely believed that diseases and illness had some divine component and could be a kind of Godly punishment. People did not wash themselves or their hands daily, and they certainly didn’t know much about how infections spread. Sewage and waste were dumped in the streets, and water sources were easily contaminated. Fecal-Oral transmission was not a term or a recognized cause of disease in those days. In fact, Germ Theory was still gaining momentum and acceptance among scientists at this time. Microorganisms were seen as a secondary result of infection, not the cause. Dr. Snow’s actions helped cement this theory and forever change the management of disease outbreaks for centuries to come.

It all started when an outbreak of cholera (which is briefly described here) in London in 1854. The outbreak began in Soho and caused a staggering 550 deaths in just 2 weeks. Due to this, Dr.Snow went door-to-door to track the progression of the disease, and he color coded a map of the city outlining the affected and unaffected residents. Through his work, he was able to analyze the information for patterns, and he discovered that everyone in the afflicted area used the same water pump, the Broad Street water pump. After presenting his findings, the handle to the pump was removed , and the amount of cholera cases in the community decreased dramatically.

Although it took a significant amount of time for the spread of cholera to be linked to contaminated water, despite the evidence found in Dr.Snow’s research, his methodical and systematic pursuit of knowledge and information, as well as his analysis that ruled out other possible contributing factors of disease set the foundation of epidemiological research in the future.

Dr. Snow is also noted to have contributed to the study of the new field of anesthesiology and to have linked cholera disease to water-borne conditions.


Famous Names

Rita Colwell

Welcome to the first edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” In this segment, I will do my best to give credit and recognition to the scientists, activists, philanthropists, epidemiologists, and advocates who have made significant contributions to the field of public health. These individuals have changed the course of human health and have helped construct the world we live in and know of today.

To kick off our exploriation of the most influential contributors to the field, we are starting with Rita Colwell!


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Rita Colwell holds a doctorate degree in oceanography from University of Washington as well as 55 honorary degrees and numerous other awards due to her research of infectious diseases from water sources and their impacts on global health. Dr.Colwell has been contributing to the field of microbiology and aquatic diseases for more than 40 years. She has contributed to more than 750 scientific papers and 17 books during her career, and she produced the film “Invisible Seas” (source). She has acted as the director of the National Science Foundation, president of CosmosID, Inc., held many advisory positions in the U.S. government, and has acted as an advisor, chairman or contributing member to many other organizations over the years.

Her research has been instrumental in predicting outbreaks and disease patterns by using the environment. This is particularly true of cholera, a disease that she centered her research efforts on for many years. Dr.Colwell has been instrumental in connecting temperature changes in water to outbreaks of cholera and her subsequent research has led to cost effective ways to filter water in order to reduce the spread of the disease. In fact, she determined that using sari and nylon filtration methods in areas of the world where people cannot reliably boil their water before drinking can reduce the incidence of the disease by approximately 39 percent!

Although she has already established herself as a groundbreaking professional in the field of environmental health and has led to monumental advancements in our understanding of water borne diseases and cholera, Dr.Colwell continues to add to the scientific community. One of her more recent endeavors is acting as the founding of GeoHealth, a scientific journal created by the American Geophysical Union . This journal will focus on research, reviews, and commentaries on the growing field of environmental sciences and its relation to human and environmental health. This venture continues to promote the growth and advancement of enviromental sciences and gives other scientists the opportunity to contribute to the foundation that Dr.Colwell’s earlier works laid for this community.