We've seen the many ways that the Atomic Energy Commission tried to find peaceful uses for nuclear weapons . Here's a new crazy twist. They hired a physicist and a doctor to create a nuclear-powered heart.

The project that united Michael DeBakey, a cardiologist, and Glenn Seaborg, a physicist, wasn't as crazy as it sounds at first. In 1965, the Atomic Energy Commission was casting around for peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. Plutonium-239 was as small an energy source as anyone could hope to find. Glenn Seaborg, formerly of the Manhattan Project, was skilled at manipulating it.

DeBakey was a driven physician. He believed that with adequate funding and talented people, they could have an artificial heart within five years. Even the Russians got involved. The USSR saw collaborating with the US as a way of garnering good will and saving tens of thousands of lives.

Unfortunately, the physicists and the physicians did not get along. Each thought that their design should take precedence. The medical team pointed out that the heart would be useless if the actual shape of the heart didn't match up to the veins and arteries in the body. The physicists resented that their problem, using plutonium-238 to create mechanical movement in a very tight space, was downplayed. (Plutonium 239 had proved too energetic.) Groups that should have been working together developed their designs separately.

Still, the device was created, and worked. Implanted inside a cow, it would keep the cow alive. Unfortunately, it would keep the cow alive only a few hours. Mechanical errors like kinks in the tubing ruined the hearts, or implantation errors ruined the hearts — or, sometimes, the hearts just didn't work. The fact that the physicists and doctors and directors had fought like cats didn't help the project along. In the end, forty-one artificial hearts made it into forty-one cows. None of them survived.


Meanwhile, other technologies got better. Ways to monitor the heart, assist the heart, and help the heart heal took precedence over swapping the heart out completely. By 1979, this project was scrapped.

Image: Daniel Schwen

[Source: The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, The Artificial Heart; Costs, Risks, and Benefits.]