Cold Calculation Keeps Hearts Beating

Wilfred BigelowBy David McLaughlin

It takes creative thinking to come up with a good use for hypothermia.

Wilfred Bigelow (1913 – 2005), who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1938, became intrigued with the effect of hypothermia on the body while operating on soldiers in the Second World War. Hypothermia delays deterioration of tissue when a patient's circulation has stopped, and Bigelow saw its potential to save limbs when the main artery was severed.

Bigelow’s fascination with the effects of hypothermia continued when he returned from the war and began practice as a surgeon and researcher at Toronto General Hospital. He explored the potential for lowering body temperature during surgery: a technique that doctors at the time thought was too life-threatening to be useful.

And in 1950, he stunned attendees at a medical conference by showing that lowering the body’s core temperature, which reduces oxygen requirements, could make open heart surgery possible. Two years later, his hypothermia experiments led other surgeons to perform the world’s first such operation. Cooling became standard practice to protect the heart during surgery.

In 1951, Bigelow created the first electronic heart pacemaker — a device that regulates heart beats. During one of Bigelow’s experiments on hypothermia, a patient’s heart stopped and did not respond to cardiac massage. He poked the heart with a metal prod and produced a contraction. Later, he experimented with an electrical impulse to produce the same effect.

Bigelow’s pacemaker was an external machine that plugged into an electrical socket. His research paved the way for improvements by other physicians and engineers, which led to the first implantable pacemaker in 1958.

Bigelow is considered the father of cardiovascular surgery in Canada. He published many research papers, and led the development of cardiac programs that improved surgical care across the country. He trained 40 cardiac surgeons and set up the first division of cardiac surgery in Toronto in 1947. Ten years later, he created Canada’s first inter-hospital postgraduate cardiovascular surgical training program.  

Bigelow received many awards, including the International Gairdner Award for Medical Science, and he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 1992, the Canadian Medical Association gave him the F.N.G. Starr Medal, the organization’s highest honour.