Smithsonian Shows How To Mend a Broken Heart

Display at National Museum of American History Explores Artificial Heart Valve
September 22, 2016

How do you mend a broken heart? The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open “Mending Broken Hearts,” a display of 21 different artificial heart valves, documenting the development and evolution of one area of cardiac surgical innovation. On view from Sept. 23 to March 19, 2017, the exhibit explores how surgeons and engineers worked to create a viable artificial valve. Approximately 100,000 artificial heart valves are implanted in the U.S. annually.

The human heart is a four-chambered muscular organ that pumps blood through the body. The heart has four valves: aortic, pulmonary, tricuspid and mitral. These valves allow blood to flow in one direction between chambers. Mechanical valves are designed to mimic the function of the heart’s natural valves, opening and closing with each heart beat to allow for proper blood flow. The success of today’s artificial valves is credited to years of experimenting with different designs and new materials such as nylon, Dacron and Lucite.

“Today, the implementation of artificial heart valves within the human body has become routine, but the surgery’s beginnings are that of experimentation and uncertainty,” said Judy Chelnick, curator in the Division of Medicine and Science, “Designing a reliable and effective artificial heart valve has proven to be a formidable task.”

The Schimert-Cutter valve, which was donated to the museum by Manuel Villafaña, a medical technology entrepreneur, is highlighted in the exhibit. The valve was never actually implanted into a living heart and never went into official production. Its unique design contributed to its nickname, the “toilet seat.”

Also featured in the display are several surgical instruments used by heart surgeons throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1940s and 50s performing heart surgery was uncommon and extremely risky. Because many surgical instruments were not specifically developed for cardiac surgery, surgeons often had to improvise, using instruments from other medical disciplines or even using their own index finger to dilate valves. One object on display is a guillotine knife from around 1946 and donated by Charles P. Baily, M.D. While working blindly on a beating heart, a surgeon used this knife to cut stiffened tissue away from the mitral valve.

Today, surgeons can implant an artificial valve without opening up the chest cavity, thereby reducing recovery time. Scanlan International Inc. and Edwards Lifesciences donated surgical instruments used for this type of minimally invasive surgery. These instruments are reflective of the tools used for new cardiac surgical techniques and indicative of modifications made to original instrument designs.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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