Monday, January 24, 2011

The Heart's Hero: Dr. John H. Gibbon

The Babe calls his shot?
Raise your hand if you have heard of Babe Ruth. Okay that's what I thought. (Yes, I can see through this thing. Spooky, eh? Look closely at the eyes of the rabbit in the header -- secret cameras.) Anyway, exactly what I expected: everyone but a few cantaloupes, a broken screen-door in Glasgow and a newborn or two in the Arctic has heard of The Babe.

Okay, now, raise your hand if you have ever heard of John H. Gibbon. Hm. Again, as I expected. Some doctors and a few med students. Oh, and I see the guy who was sitting a few chairs down from me in the waiting room at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia all day yesterday. (We both read -- over and over again -- about Gibbon on a big display which explained why the building was named after him.)

Now raise your hand if you have had heart surgery that required bypass or if you know someone who did. Right -- a whole lot of people.

So, the question is this: what did Babe Ruth do for the world? What did he do for you? Well, I guess he entertained and amazed everyone, but, for you, outside of maybe providing fodder for dreams (which is important -- don't get me wrong), not much else.

I'm a pretty well-read guy. How is it that I, who was born in Philadelphia and who is interested in both history and science, have never heard of Dr. John H. Gibbon, the man after whom a building at Jefferson Hospital was named and who invented the heart and lung machine which allows bypass surgery for cardiac patients?

Jim Creighton
I know that Forrest Tucker was in a lot of John Wayne films; I know that Miklos Rozsa wrote the score to Ben Hur and El Cid; I know that Jim Creighton was the first professional baseball player in America; I know Mel Blanc, the provider of Bugs Bunny's voice, was allergic to carrots but chewed them anyway while recording for the cartoons because he was dissatisfied with the crunch-sound of proposed substitutes like celery and pretzels. I know all of this, but I had no knowledge of the local genius who created the machine that would, this past Thursday, allow my own father to have a longer life.

The Babe and Dr. Gibbon were contemporaries -- the former born in 1895 and the latter born in 1903. You have to wonder how it is that a man who did something so important is obscured by a guy who hit a ball really far a lot of times, even if he was the best ever to play the game.

Maybe we don't want to be saved so much as we want to be amazed. There is nothing really interesting about a machine that oxygenates blood. Not to most people. But when the Bambino pointed to right field and "called" that homerun . . . now that was a great moment in human history. I mean, it may be cool and all, but what is really entertaining about just knowing that a dude who wore a bow tie dreamed up an idea that has saved and prolonged umpteen kazillion lives?

Maybe we are willing to trade really improving the world for making it less tedious.

I suppose true, meaningful greatness requires loads of humility and true selflessness. After all, who is going to visit the "Doctors' Hall of Fame"?

Dr. John H. Gibbon, 1903-1973
Anyway, thanks, Dr. Gibbon, for letting me hold on to my dad. I love baseball, but, from now on, you'll mean more to me than Babe Ruth ever did.


  1. Well spoken sir. Doctors save lives every day, and make less then men who throw a baseball. Firefighters and police officers save lives, and I defy you to name 5 really famous ones. Soldiers in the army, protecting us, can make as little as $21,000, and their lives are on the line. Entertainment is a great thing, I wonder if this relates to the sense of immortality and instant gratitude a lot of this country has now. We don't want to think about getting sick, or injured, or paralyzed. We like the concept of being safe, but not the details. We'd rather watch some men hit each other on a field. God bless Nurses, Doctors, and all others protecting our lives in one way or another.