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Tex Heart Inst J. 2004; 31(2): 113.
PMCID: PMC427366

In Memoriam John W. Kirklin 1917–2004

Members of the medical profession and especially cardiovascular specialists were saddened to learn of Dr. John W. Kirklin's death on 21 April 2004, from a head injury that he had sustained several months earlier. Dr. Kirklin was 86 years old and had been in failing health for several years.

Born in Muncie, Indiana, Dr. Kirklin earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1942, he graduated from Harvard Medical School. His interest in congenital heart disease formed during his specialty training at Boston Children's Hospital under Dr. Robert Gross, one of the most renowned pediatric surgeons of the era. While at the Mayo Clinic in the early 1950s, Dr. Kirklin made his first contribution to the field of cardiac surgery by refining and improving the design of the heart-lung machine, which had been developed collaboratively by Dr. John Gibbon of Jefferson Medical College and the International Business Machine Corporation. Dr. Gibbon's initial clinical results with the machine had been disappointing, but Dr. Kirklin's modifications made it possible, for the first time in medical history, to repair congenital cardiac anomalies—including tetralogy of Fallot—with consistent success. The discovery that a mechanical oxygenator could reliably replace pulmonary function in an extracorporeal circuit stimulated considerable interest and inspired many surgeons to pursue the development of open-heart surgery techniques.

In 1966, Dr. Kirklin accepted a position at the University of Alabama, where he built one of the most respected and successful cardiovascular surgery programs in the nation. His analytic, intellectual approach to problems in heart surgery gained him worldwide recognition, and he was honored with many awards, both domestic and foreign, for his achievements. In his educational endeavors, Dr. Kirklin was highly regarded as a lecturer on cardiac surgery and an authority on complex congenital cardiac defects. With his colleague, Dr. Brian Barratt-Boyes, Dr. Kirklin compiled Cardiac Surgery, a monumental textbook that today remains an authoritative reference on the subject.

From a personal standpoint, I held John Kirklin in the highest respect. I have always been grateful for his willingness, in 1954, to allow the late Dr. Dan McNamara and me to watch him perform open-heart surgery. At my instigation, in 1977, Dr. Kirklin became the sixth recipient of the Ray C. Fish Award—the medal of the Texas Heart Institute—for his achievement. The citation on our wall of honor reads, “Fabricated and used one of the first heart-lung machines for open intracardiac repair.” Recently, John's son, Jim, gave a lecture at our institution and related his own experience with cardiac transplantation. I join with John's family, colleagues, students, and friends in expressing gratitude for having known him.

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Figure. Portrait of Dr. Kirkland as recipient of the 6th Ray C. Fish Award at the Texas Heart Institute (Illustration by Russell Jones, ©1977, Texas Hear® Institute)

Articles from Texas Heart Institute Journal are provided here courtesy of Texas Heart Institute
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