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John H. Gibbon Papers

Identifier: MS C 313


Dr. John H. Gibbon invented the first artificial heart-lung machine and performed the first human open heart operation. The collection includes material on this subject as well as some biographical and genealogical data.


  • 1930-1981


3.3 Linear Feet (8 boxes)


Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine

Language of Materials

Collection materials primarily in English

Access Restrictions

No restrictions on access.

Copyright and Re-use Information

Donor's copyrights were transferred to the public domain. Archival collections often contain mixed copyrights; while NLM is the owner of the physical items, permission to examine collection materials is not an authorization to publish. These materials are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. It is the user's responsibility to research and understand any applicable copyright and re-publication rights not allowed by fair use. NLM does not grant permissions to publish.

Privacy Information

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Biographical/Historical Note

John Heysham Gibbon (1903-1973) was born in Philadelphia, PA, and was a fourth generation physician. He received his A.B. from Princeton University in 1923 and his M.D. from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1927. He also received honorary degrees from the Universities of Princeton, Buffalo and Pennsylvania, and Dickinson College. As a member of the faculty at Jefferson Medical College, he held the positions of Professor of Surgery and Director of the Department of Surgery (1946-1956) and was the Samuel D. Gross Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery (1946-1967). He was widely recognized for his pioneering efforts in surgery and the invention of the heart-lung bypass machine. His awards include the Lasker Award (1968), Gairdner Foundation International Award, Distinguished Service Awards from both the International Society of Surgery and the Pennsylvania Medical Society, the American Heart Association's Research Achievement Award, and election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and retired as Emeritus Professor of Surgery, Jefferson Medical College Hospital. Dr. Gibbon was also president of several professional societies and organizations including the American Surgical Association, American Association for Thoracic Surgery, Society of Vascular Surgery, Society of Clinical Surgery.

The death of a young patient in 1931 first stirred Dr. Gibbon's imagination about developing an artificial device for bypassing the heart and lungs, allowing for more effective heart surgery techniques. He was dissuaded by all with whom he broached the subject, but he continued his experiments and invention independently. In 1935 he successfully used a prototype heart-lung bypass machine to keep a cat alive for 26 minutes. Gibbon's World War II army service in the China-Burma-India Theater temporarily interrupted his research. He began a new series of experiments with dogs in the 1950s, using IBM-built machines. The new device used a refined method of cascading the blood down a thin sheet of film for oxygenation, rather than the original whirling technique that could potentially damage blood corpuscles. Using the new method, twelve dogs were kept alive for more than an hour during heart operations. The next step involved using the machine on humans, and in 1953 Cecelia Bavolek became the first to successfully undergo open heart bypass surgery, with the machine totally supporting her heart and lung functions for more than half the duration.

Collection Summary

Laboratory Notes, photographs, typescripts, correspondence, manuscripts, blueprints, reprints, printed matter, awards, certificates and diplomas provide comprehensive coverage of Dr. John H. Gibbon's professional life, especially his work on developing the first artificial heart-lung bypass machine. The collection principally consists of material on Gibbon's experiments relating to artificial circulation and oxygenation and the devices he invented, while developing the heart-lung machine and the oxygenator. These subjects, along with his contributions to the advancement of heart surgery, provided the core of Gibbon's work and are the areas within medicine where he was most influential.

Series 1 includes an array of biographical and genealogical data on John H. Gibbon. Newspaper clippings from the town named for his family (Gibbon, Nebraska) as well as documentation of past physicians in the family show a long history of medical practitioners in the family. This series also includes various photographs of him and his acquaintances, as well as his CV. Additional information about Gibbon's personal life are also provided.

Series 2, 3, and 4 (Heart-Lung Machine, Artificial Circulation, Oxygenator, respectively) include laboratory notes, photographs, and blueprints, documenting in great detail the development and creation of the apparatuses and procedures that incorporated them . While some of the experiment notes are written by Gibbon himself, the folders titled "Artificial Circulation - Laboratory Notes" in Series 3 are transcriptions of unknown sourced laboratory notes. They were provided by Ada Romaine-Davis (A.R.Davis) who authored the book John Gibbon and His Heart-Lung Machine (1991). Notes by Don Rex from the IBM Corporation, the engineer of the oxygenator, as well as notes and detailed photography of various parts of the different incarnations of the machines, comprehensively document the actual construction of the machinery. Additional information about Gibbon's experiments and machinery construction can also be found in Gibbon’s scientific publications within Series 7.

Series 5: Correspondence, contains the majority of Gibbon's letters in the collection. While there are some personal letters, the majority of the correspondence is professional in nature while at Jefferson Medical College and afterwards. It represents Gibbon's communication with other physicians and companies involved in the development of the machinery, as well as his relationships with various institutions. Letters between the Mark Company and IBM concerning the heart-Lung machine are notable.

Series 6: Awards and Prizes and Series 8: Professional Activities illustrate Gibbon's achievements in medicine and his influence in the national and international medical community. Series 6 contains actual awards and plaques and Series 8 contains many pictures, the bulk of which highlights the American Friends Service Committee in Hanoi, North Vietnam.


Dr. John H. Gibbon invented the first artificial heart-lung machine and performed the first human open heart operation. The collection includes material on this subject as well as some biographical and genealogical data.

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine


Gift of Mrs. Gibbon (1976) and Dr. Ada Romaine Davis (1992), Acc. #225, 772.


Processed by
HMD Staff; Kate Long
Processing Completed
Unknown; Nov. 2013
Encoded by
Dan Jenkins; Kate Long
Finding Aid to the John H. Gibbon Papers1930-1981
Unverified Partial Draft
HMD Staff; Kate Long
Unknown; Nov. 2013
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English
Edition statement

Collecting Area Details

Part of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection Collecting Area

8600 Rockville Pike
Bldg 38/1E-21, MSC 3819
Bethesda MD 20894 US
1-888-FINDNLM (1-888-346-3656)