Varco, Richard L.

Innovative American surgeon (1912-2004) who helped perform the first successful open heart operation. On Sept. 2, 1952 at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Varco’s team, led by Dr. C. Walton Lillehei and Dr. F. John Lewis, cut off the flow of blood to the heart after lowering the patient’s body temperature to protect her brain. Wrapped in a cold rubber blanket, the patient, a 5-year-old girl, was anesthetized to reduce her shivering. With a window of 10 minutes to operate, the team quickly stitched a small hole between her upper chambers. She was rewarmed, and survived.

In 1953, Dr. Varco performed the world’s first obesity operation. The procedure, an intestinal bypass, evolved into today’s gastric bypass. It was designed to help patients lose weight by limiting the amount of calories they could absorb, unlike gastric bypass, which reduces food intake.

With Dr. Henry Buchwald, two mechanical engineers and a physiologist, Dr. Varco also created the world’s first implantable drug-infusion pump in the 1960s. A similar device today delivers insulin to diabetics, pain medication to the spinal cord and anti-clotting medicines to the bloodstream.

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