10 Strange Things in the Smithsonian's Collection


Sewell's Heart Pump

In 1959, the Smithsonian acquired a device that was a pioneering precursor to modern artificial heart technology. Built in 1948 and 1949, by Yale School of Medicine student William H. Sewell Jr. (under the tutelage of his thesis adviser Dr. William W. L. Glenn), it was one of the first functioning heart pumps, able to successfully bypass the right side of the heart.

Besides being an important technological innovation, this particular heart pump was extraordinary for an entirely different reason: It was built primarily from the pieces of an Erector Set and cost a grand total of $24.80 to construct [source: Glenn]. Apart from the Erector Set components (including a motor), among the other items used to assemble this deceptively simple, pneumatically powered heart pump was an assortment of cannulas, cams, valves, glass tubes and connectors -- all stuff the soon-to-be Dr. Sewell could find easily in a typical lab or purchase at a dime store. After assembly, it simply needed to be hooked up to a tank of compressed air and a vacuum pump.

Sewell's heart pump was tested successfully during several experiments with dogs, and it served as an important prototype for later life-saving cardiac devices. Another intriguing artifact that combines medicine with cutting-edge engineering awaits us on the next page.