Oral History: James A. Wood and the artificial heart valve

Image of two Starr-Edwards ball-and-cage style artificial heart valves set on an orange-red background. The valve on the left has a metal ball, while the valve on the right has a white plastic ball. Both balls are enclosed in white mesh cloth-covered cages.

This post comes from Roman Block, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

Each year, our lives are changed by new inventions, revelations about our collective past, and developments in health care, for ours is an era of rapid advancement and technological innovation. As we look to the future, it is also useful to reflect upon the past and consider how far we have come. In this 1998 interview from the Oral History Collection, James A. Wood, M.D., an alumnus and former faculty member, reflects upon a life-changing medical achievement he was a part of during his time at OHSU: the Starr-Edwards Valve.

Newspaper clipping including a black and white photograph of members of research team of Albert Starr, M.D. From left to right, James Wood, M.D., Albert Starr, M.D. (seated), Colin McCord, M.D., and Rodney Herr, M.D. The photograph is captioned, "Surgery team at University of Oregon Medical School reported this weekend in Los Angeles on 14 cases of multiple valve replacements in human heart."
Newspaper clipping showing members of the research team of Albert Starr, M.D. From left to right, James Wood, M.D., Albert Starr, M.D. (seated), Colin McCord, M.D., and Rodney Herr, M.D.

Nowadays, heart valve replacements are safe and routine surgeries that account for “twenty-five to thirty percent” of total cardiothoracic surgeries, according to Dr. Wood, but prior to the 1960s, the technology for these procedures didn’t exist. Valve issues were relatively common during the mid-twentieth century, particularly due to rampant cases of rheumatic fever and other similar infections. At the time, commissurotomies, or surgeries to repair damaged valves, were the only available method and often came at great risk, for any small tear or injury during the surgery could result in the patient’s death. Finding a safe treatment was a pressing need for medical professionals at the time and the work of Lowell Edwards and Dr. Albert Starr provided the solution. The symbiotic relationship of Edwards and Starr, which capitalized on the former’s abilities as an engineer and the latter’s as a surgeon, served as the catalyst to create the first valve to function properly.

So, how did this become possible? We learn that through the private funding of Edwards, the design of the prosthetic valve, the exhaustive testing of Starr and his team (including Wood), and the willing participation of patients with valve issues specifically, Edward and Starr’s work was successful. Dr. Wood’s interview further outlines and contextualizes the triumph of the Starr-Edwards Valve by exploring what led him to OHSU and his participation in Dr. Starr’s work, the overarching history of heart valve replacements and the relationship to cardiothoracic surgery, and tracing the processes by which the Starr-Edwards Valve came to be successfully used in human patients.

Related interviews: Albert Starr, M.D. (2007) and Miles J. Edwards (1998)

Ultimately, Dr. Wood’s interview provides insight into one of the most revolutionary and important medical advancements of the twentieth century as the Starr-Edwards Valve saved thousands of lives, was exported to Europe, and propelled the field of medical research even further than before. As OHSU enters a new era of service and research, it continues to be useful to acknowledge our past accomplishments to remember how far we have come as an institution and how many lives have been impacted and bettered as a result.

Read the interview

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