Paul Winchell

Erroneous Claims

Ventriloquist Paul Winchell (1922-2005) claimed that he invented the first artificial heart, and publicized his claim in television appearances, newspapers, and on his Web site. A search of “Paul Winchell” and “artificial heart” on Google gives almost 2,000 articles, many of which erroneously repeat Paul Winchell’s false claims as if they were fact.

Specifically, on his Web site he is quoted as saying that he was “the first inventor to ever receive a U.S. patent for an artificial heart,” and that he “filed in the summer of 1956.”

Mr. Winchell’s page entitled “The Artificial Heart” includes the following statement:

“I applied for a patent and then I awaited the examiner's report. The initial search revealed that the device was cleared for patent and no prior art had been found. I filed in the summer of 1956.

It took me almost eight years to convince the examiner of the device's possibilities. He too thought I was wacky but he finally acceded, making me the first inventor to ever receive a U.S. patent for an artificial heart.”

All of these claims are untrue.

The Facts

Paul Winchell’s only artificial heart patent (US patent No. 3,097,366 ) was filed Feb. 6, 1961 (not in the summer of 1956) and issued 2½ years later on July 16, 1963. Certainly, he did not invent the first artificial heart. Patents that preceded his include artificial hearts by Fry (US Patent No. 2,917,751 filed April 10, 1956 and issued December 22, 1959), and by Norton (US Patent No. 3,048,165 filed April 17, 1959 and issued August 7, 1962).

During the 1950’s, well prior to Winchell’s filing, heart lung machines were invented and many patents were issued for external mechanical hearts. There were many publications concerning the subject such as “Some Physiologic Aspects of the Artificial Heart Problem” (Dodrill et al.: Journal of Thoracic Surgery, Volume 24, No. 2 August 1952, pages 134-153). Internal artificial hearts were developed and implanted into experimental animals by Akutsu and Kolff at the Cleveland Clinic, beginning in 1957, although their early work was published and not patented, which was customary for inventors from academia.

Mr. Winchell donated rights to his patent to the University of Utah in 1972. His claim that his invention was modified and used in the first human recipient of an artificial heart is false.

According his Web site, Mr. Winchell claimed:

“I returned again to Utah when I heard rumblings that the FDA was considering trying the technology on a human being. I met a young man there who had been hired to adapt the invention for human physiology. His name was Robert Jarvik, a brilliant biomedical engineer who had begun to modify the heart for a human being. Until then my patent had been used primarily for animal studies and was much too large for the human chest. By the time Jarvik had reduced the unit, a brave dentist named Barney Clark volunteered to be the first recipient of an artificial heart.”

Robert Jarvik was hired to work on artificial hearts in 1971, before Paul Winchell had any involvement with the University of Utah. Dr. Jarvik’s artificial heart designs did not utilize any aspect of the invention patented by Mr. Winchell, which was not used in any way in the development of the Jarvik 7. The scope of Winchell’s patent (3,097,366) is limited to devices that use pivotally mounted plates or cam driven roller mechanisms to compress flexible plastic bags containing blood. The mechanisms described in his patent are crude and impractical, were never used to construct a working model suitable for long term animal use, and were never utilized in any total artificial heart implanted into a human patient.

Paul Winchell’s claims have been erroneously repeated by respected publications such as the Washington Post, which failed to fact-check the information. The Post included the following in Paul Winchell’s obituary on June 27, 2005.

“In 1963, Mr. Winchell patented an artificial heart that he said was a collaboration with Henry J. Heimlich, inventor of the maneuver for choking victims. Mr. Winchell's device was considered the prototype for the one designed by Robert K. Jarvik that was successfully implanted in a human in 1982”.

The Winchell device was not the prototype for the first permanent total artificial heart — the Jarvik-7 heart — which was an improvement upon earlier pneumatically powered heart designs by doctors Akutsu, Kolff, Liotta, Kwan-Gett and others. The Jarvik-7 did not use any of the mechanisms patented by Paul Winchell, and was an entirely separate development. US patent No. 4,863,461, patented by Dr. Jarvik, illustrates the principal of operation of many pneumatic hearts. The closest functional predecessor of the Jarvik-7 heart was the Kwan-Gett heart, which had sustained an animal for a world record of 10.8 days (260 hours) at the time Robert Jarvik joined Dr. Kolff’s program at the University of Utah in 1971. Dr. Kolff assigned Dr. Jarvik (then a young inventor and recent graduate in Biomechanics who had not yet completed his MD degree) the task of developing a new model heart to overcome the two limiting problems with the Kwan-Gett heart: 1) obstruction to venous return; and 2) poor reliability when fabricated from blood compatible polyurethane material. Dr. Jarvik invented the multi-layer blood pump diaphragm, which achieved durability of years compared to the durability of only a few weeks obtained with single layer polyurethane diaphragms used in the Kwan-Gett device. Dr. Jarvik also overcame the problem of obstruction of venous return by better matching the anatomic configuration of the artificial heart to the natural anatomic shape, and he designed the human configuration of the Jarvik-7 heart used to treat Dr. Barney Clark.

The small size Jarvik-7 heart has since been renamed the CardioWest heart and is the only total artificial heart granted full PMA approval by the United States Food and Drug Administration.


Paul Winchell Web site:

Winchell patent:
US patent No. 3,097,366

Fry patent 291775:1
US Patent No. 2,917,751

Norton Patent 3048165:
US Patent No. 3,048,165

Jarvik Patent 4863461  Artificial ventricle:
US patent No. 4,863,461

Syncardia Web site:

Consequences of the diaphragm driven artificial heart-animal implantation and mock circulation studies. Chest. 1973 Apr;63(4):589-97

Venous return of an artificial heart designed to prevent right heart syndrome
Jarvik R, Volder J, Olsen D, Moulopoulos S, Kolff WJ.
Ann Biomed Eng. 1974 Dec;2(4):335-42

Survival for 18 days with a Jarvik-type artificial heart.
Oster H, Olsen DB, Jarvik R, Stanley TH, Volder JG, Kolff WJ.
Surgery. 1975 Jan;77(1):113-7.