Alumnus is unintentional pioneer

Jan 7, 2003

The result was completely accidental. Looking back almost 50 years, Kettering/GMI alumnus Art McDonald '33 still sounds astonished when describing how a finger tube flexing pump his company produced in the 1950s was the difference between life and death for people with heart problems.

The result was completely accidental. Looking back almost 50 years, Kettering/GMI alumnus Art McDonald '33 still sounds astonished when describing how a finger tube flexing pump his company produced in the 1950s was the difference between life and death for people with heart problems.

Even today, when recalling the use of the Sigmamotor T-6S pump in an open-heart surgery he witnessed on a two-year-old girl back in the 1950s, he can recount every detail of the procedure.

"I was so close to the operating table that I could see the little girl's heart beat in the surgeon's hand," explained McDonald, who resides in Middleport, N.Y., with Jessie, his wife of 63 years.

It never dawned on him that one day some in the engineering community would refer to him as one of the pioneers in the biomedical engineering field. After leaving General Motors Corp. in 1936, he founded E&M Enterprises, a successful tool and die company, along with his brother Frederick. During the war years of the 1940s, E&M expanded to help the war effort, producing parts for Harrison Radiator, Sterling Engine, Chrysler and other companies. With the end of the war, McDonald shifted gears and branched into the public market, designing and producing for Kodak, DuPont, Moore Business Forms and other companies.

Following WWII, McDonald hired Van Hungerford as a sales engineer. In his work for E&M, Hungerford met an engineer from DuPont who had patented a small finger pump. E&M negotiated with the engineer and obtained a license to redesign the pump into the Sigmamotor Pump, which was used primarily as a chemical feeder.

By 1954, heart surgeons had not yet found a way to correct defects inside the human heart. At the time, some surgeons experimented with the use of heart-lung machines to support a patient while the heart was clamped off during a surgical procedure. One doctor in particular - C. Walton Lillehei of Minneapolis, regarded as the father of open-heart surgery -believed that heart-lung machines were too complicated, since clamping of the heart during surgery also meant that the brain did not receive oxygen, which could cause death. Lillehei proposed using a child's parent to support life during the child's operation by connecting their circulatory systems with a pump and tubing. This would allow him to shut off the blood to the child's heart, and open and repair it without damaging the brain. The technology for this "cross-circulation" consisted of a pump and hose.

This is where McDonald's company suddenly came into the story. Dr. Lillehei first used the firm's Sigmamotor Pump during a controversial operation in March 1954 on a 14-month-old boy. Once the surgeon completed the procedure, he turned the pump off and watched as the boy's heart began to beat vigorously and without the heart murmur diagnosed previously.

Today, McDonald can still recall the excitement surrounding the use of the Sigmamotor Pump to help save lives during open-heart operations. "I witnessed the fourth operation by Dr. Lillehei and Dr. Sullivan Varco, which was performed on a two-year-old girl," he said. "I stood near Dr. Varco and could see the girl's heart beat as Lillehei held it in his hand. After herc hest was closed, she was put on the recovery table. She was blue and Dr. Lillehei and Dr. Varco held hands over the girl as she turned from blue to pink. Both doctors were crying and so were we as we stood behind them."

Later, a book titled "King of Hearts" was published, which conveyed the story of Dr. C. Walton Lillehei and the early experimental surgical techniques that set the stage for today's heart surgery technology.

McDonald is grateful for the education he received at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and considers it the foundation of his success. A lifelong supporter of cooperative education, he actively seeks out potential students for Kettering University and encourages them to apply.

As the father of four children and many grandchildren, including Aaron David McDonald '94, the McDonalds feel fortunate that all those years in the engineering field have made the lives of other people that much more special because of this pump. Little did McDonald know that one day he would be considered a pioneer - albeit an unintentional pioneer - in the biomedical engineering field.

Written by Gary Erwin
(810) 762-9538
gerwin@kettering.edu