Cardiovascular Physiology At The University Of Minnesota

The Department of Physiology at the University of Minnesota has a rich history of performing basic cardiovascular research and establishing clinical collaborations within the institution. Not only have these individuals published many important basic research papers, but they also have been integrally involved in the training of many generations of cardiac physiologists, surgeons, and biomedical engineers.

One of the more notable chairs of the Department of Physiology was Maurice Visscher, who was present during the Owen Wangensteen and C. Walton Lillehei eras. In 1936, Dr. Visscher returned to the University of Minnesota to succeed Dean Lyon as the head of physiology (Table 3). He first came to Minnesota in 1922 as a graduate student in physiology under the mentorship of Frederick Scott and satisfied the requirements for both PhD and MD degrees in a 4-year period (10).

Interestingly, subsequent to his studies, Visscher served a postdoctoral fellowship in England at the University College, London. While there, he worked under the advisement of the notable cardiac physiologist Ernest Starling, who at that time was near the end of his brilliant career (e.g., Starling's law of the heart). Together in 1927, Starling and Visscher published a classic paper in which, using a heart-lung preparation (introduced by Starling in 1910), they reported that the oxygen consumption of the heart was correlated directly with its volume in diastole without regard to the amount of work the heart was exerting in pumping blood (11,12). After Starling's death in 1927, Visscher continued his research on this topic while serving as the Physiology Department chair in Minnesota; his research was considered to shed valuable light on the mechanisms underlying heart disease caused by coronary occlusion, in general.

It has been described that Owen Wangensteen, recognizing how many such findings were directly applicable to surgery, initiated collaborations with Visscher and the Physiology Department. To this extent, Wangensteen even initiated and conducted a regular "Physiology-Surgery Conference" that was considered "invaluable in acquainting surgical residents with the techniques of experimental physiology" (12). Many also credit Wangensteen's academic philosophies for enabling the pioneering advancements in open heart surgery and subsequent pacemaker technologies at the University of Minnesota.

For example, Earl Bakken asked C. Walton Lillehei in 1997, "How did you have the courage to go ahead with these pioneering-type experiments?" Lillehei replied, "As I think, when I look back, that was part of the Wangensteen training system" (13). He further elaborated:

He [Wangensteen] was a unique person in many regards. One [aspect of his] uniqueness was his training system. He had a great faith in research, animal or other types of laboratory research. He felt that the results of his research gave the young investigator the courage to challenge accepted beliefs and go forward, which you would not have had, as I look back, as a young surgical resident. That's why many of the great universities didn't produce much in the way of innovative research, because they were so steeped in tradition. Wangensteen had a wide open mind. If research showed some value then you should pursue it.

The University of Minnesota has a rich history of basic and applied cardiac research. Noted in Table 4 are several of the physiologists who had full or adjunct appointments in the Physiology Department and worked on topics relevant to the cardiovascular system; these physiologists published numerous papers or served as advisors for numerous theses. Interestingly, the past few years have brought a renewed interest in refocusing the Physiology Department to again be a leader in the cardiovascular field. For example, the department has embarked on creating novel educational outreach programs for the local cardiovascular industry and added Professor Doris Taylor to the faculty as the newly created Medtronic-Bakken Research Chair in Cardiac Repair.

Dr. Lillehei believed that "What mankind can dream, research and technology can achieve." And, with the support of the Lillehei Heart Institute in collaboration with the Biomedical Engineering Institute, the circle has been completed.

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