C. Walton Lillehei, PhD, MD

The Father of Open-Heart Surgery

Walt Lillehei

A Department of Surgery professor at the University of Minnesota from 1951 to 1967, Lillehei participated in the world's first successful open-heart operation, performed at the University of Minnesota on September 2, 1952. That historic operation, using hypothermia, was led by his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. F. John Lewis.



Hypothermia, however, was not suited for most birth defects within the heart. Lillehei went on to head the team that performed, on March 26, 1954, the world's first open-heart operation using cross-circulation. In that also-historic operation at the University of Minnesota, 13-month-old Gregory Glidden underwent successful repair of a large ventricular defect; his father was temporarily hooked up to take over the pumping and oxygenating functions of his son's heart. Sadly, the child died 11 days later of pneumonia, even though his heart defect had been successfully closed. But during the next year, with amazing long-term success, Lillehei and his team used cross-circulation for more than 40 open-heart operations, which included the world's first surgical repairs of the atrioventricular canal and tetralogy of Fallot.


In 1958, Lillehei was responsible for the world's first use of a small, portable, battery-powered pacemaker, invented at his behest by Earl Bakken (a University of Minnesota employee who later founded Medtronic). Lillehei also developed and implanted the world's first prosthetic heart valves: the Lillehei-Nakib toroidal disc (1966), the Lillehei-Kaster pivoting disc (1967), and the Kalke-Lillehei rigid bileaflet prosthesis (1968).

A dedicated educator, Lillehei trained more than 150 cardiac surgeons from 40 nations, including Dr. Christiaan Barnard (a fellow University of Minnesota Ph.D. recipient in the 1950s who went on to perform the world's first heart transplant in South Africa). In 1967, he was appointed Lewis Atterbury Stimson professor and chairman of the surgery department at Cornell Medical Center, New York. He returned to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1975, where he became the director of medical affairs at St. Jude Medical, Inc. He was also named a clinical professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Minnesota.


Lillehei's countless honors include the Bronze Star for World War II service in Italy, the 1955 Lasker Award, induction in 1993 into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and the 1996 Harvey Prize in Science and Technology. In 1966-67, he served as president of the American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Lillehei died on July 5, 1999, at the age of 80. His wife, Kaye Lindberg Lillehei, established the Lillehei Heart Institute in 1999 following his passing. Both Dr. and Mrs. Lillehei are survived by one daughter, Kimberle Loken; two sons, Dr. Craig Walton Lillehei and Dr. Kevin Owen Lillehei (one son, Clark Lillehei, preceded him in death); one brother, retired internist Dr. James P. Lillehei (one brother, Dr. Richard C. Lillehei, also an acclaimed University of Minnesota surgeon-scientist, preceded him in death); seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

- Mary Knatterud, Former Research Associate & Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery

C. Walton Lillehei Museum

The Lillehei Museum is located on the second floor of the Variety Club Research Center (VCRC) in the Cardiovascular Division offices. Visitors are welcome from 9:00am to 4:00pm, Monday through Friday. Please contact the Cardiovascular Division for more information: (612) 625-9100.