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Celebrating 60 Years of Cardiac Surgery in Utah With Russell M. Nelson, M.D.


There was a time in the 1920s when it was considered absurd to work on the human heart.

By the time Russell M. Nelson, M.D., attended medical school at the University of Utah, little progress had been made.

"When we were in medical school we were taught that one must never touch the beating heart," said Nelson, remembering his early years of medical training in the late 1940's and early 1950's. "If you touched it, it would stop beating."

Nelson, a cardiothoracic surgeon known for building the first heart-lung bypass machine used on a human, reflected on the advances made in his discipline in his keynote address at an Oct. 8 SOM alumni event celebrating 60 years of cardiac surgery in Utah.

Division Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Professor of Surgery Craig Selzman, M.D., gave a brief historical presentation of the division, hailing Nelson as one of its founding fathers and a true visionary.

"In the fifties, heart surgery was considered an experiment," said Selzman.

Nelson helped lead Utah and the nation to a better understanding of the human heart. Utah was the third state in the country to have a physician perform open heart surgery on a person.

Nelson's interest in studying the human heart became a passion after seeing an early experimental version of the heart-lung bypass machine during his residency and Ph.D. studies at the University of Minnesota.

"In 1948, I helped build the first machine ever to sustain the life of a dog for 30 minutes," said Nelson.

When the machine was ready to use on human patients, it couldn't be moved due to its size.

So Nelson and his colleagues began again, creating the first heart-lung bypass machine used for the first open heart operation performed on a human being in March, 1951.

"The patient was a very complicated case and did not survive the surgery," said Nelson.

But this brought Nelson and his colleagues to a whole new level of learning.

"What do you do once you can get inside the beating heart," asked Nelson. "This was a whole new chapter for us."

Nelson returned to the University of Utah in 1955 as an assistant professor of surgery and the director of the Thoracic Surgery Residency Program.

In Utah, he developed his own updated version of the heart-lung bypass machine.

His machine was used during the first open heart operation in Utah on November 9, 1955 at Salt lake General Hospital. Patient Vernell Worthen had an atrial septal defect and lived for many years after the surgery.

"Our machine got a little better," said Nelson. "We finally knew what we had to have, and at that point got a professional machine company to create the device."

Nelson shared this knowledge and technology across the world. In 1980, he trained heart surgeons at three universities in China, and it was there that he performed his last open heart surgery in 1985.

Nelson retired from surgery after he was called to the Quorum of the 12 Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints in 1984. He is now the most senior member of the quorum.

"I'm very grateful for the privilege it's been to one who could make a contribution to medicine," said Nelson.

Lyle Joyce, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, learned firsthand from Nelson as a student. He referred to Nelson a "master teacher with consistent surgical technique."

But Nelson's impact didn't end there.

"He was a master of looking for the good in people," said Joyce. "This was very encouraging and helped spur me forward."

A new visiting professorship has been established in Nelson's name, intended to facilitate the best and the brightest from around the world to come to the University of Utah.

​Russell M. Nelson, M.D.

Bachelor's degree in 1945 and an M.D. in 1947, both from the University of Utah

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha honor societies

Trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and University of Minnesota, where he received Ph.D. in 1954

University of Utah professor of surgery and director of the Thoracic Surgery Residency Program

Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Utah

Heart of Gold Award from the American Heart Association

Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement

Honorary professorships from three universities in the People's Republic of China