The Lesser-Told Story of Clifford Kwan-Gett, MD
The University of Utah has a storied role in the history and development of the artificial heart. While many are lauded for their scientific contributions, one pivotal player is often under-recognized: Dr. Clifford Kwan-Gett, a physician-engineer without whom the path to the artificial heart would have looked much different.
Born in 1934 in the small mining town of Emmaville, New South Wales, Dr. Kwan-Gett was the eighth in a family of ten children and the first to attend university. He was initially interested in earning his degree in medicine, but then he learned that only about one-third of the medical school class graduated each year. “Failure was not an option,” he said in a recent phone interview, “so I enrolled in engineering instead.” As he neared the completion of his engineering degree while a resident at Wesley College at the University of Sydney, he was keenly aware that the desire to go to medical school was still strong, so he enrolled in the university’s medical program. He described himself as a “mediocre medical student,” noting that he could not afford to live on campus and instead spent upwards of 3 hours commuting every day. Despite the struggles, Dr. Kwan-Gett completed his medical degree and a two-year internship at Launceston General Hospital in Tasmania, Australia. During this time, he also met and married his wife of now over 50 years, Joo Een Tan.
Kwan-Gett’s dual training in medicine and engineering gave him a unique set of skills, which caught the attention of Dr. Willem Kolff at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Dr. Kwan-Gett was invited to join Dr. Kolff’s team in the beginning stages of developing an artificial heart. However, when Dr. Kwan-Gett applied to enter the United States, he was denied by Immigration because he was Chinese. He withdrew his application; instead, his Malaysian wife applied, was approved, and was able to bring him into the country as her spouse. In July of 1966, the family arrived in Ohio, and Dr. Kwan-Gett began work with Dr. Kolff and his team of senior research fellows. In 1967, Dr. Kolff moved to the University of Utah, and Dr. Kwan-Gett was the sole member of the team to follow him to Salt Lake City. Together, they established the Division of Artificial Organs at the University of Utah. Dr. Kwan-Gett was named the Associate Research Professor of Surgery and Assistant Research Professor of Electrical Engineering.
During this time, Dr. Kwan-Gett invented a pneumatically-powered total artificial heart system. He was the first to devise a passive filling system that automatically balanced blood flow in the heart’s ventricles. In addition, he was the first to discover a pumping system that did not destroy red blood cells as they moved through the artificial heart. Artificial hearts that looked excellent in the lab failed when implanted in sheep. Still, in response, Dr. Kwan-Gett continually updated and refined his design until he figured out what worked: “a polyurethane diaphragm-type artificial heart and a companion external driver.” He recalls bringing his work home with him – when his wife would take a roast out of the oven, he would put in an artificial heart, using the heat to help him mold the shape.
In 1971, Dr. Kwan-Gett left full-time research when he was offered a spot to pursue cardiothoracic surgery residency and fellowship training at the University of Utah. He laughed as he remembered this offer, noting that it was “shocking, considering [he] had no training in general surgery” and his animal surgery skills were “self-taught.” He accepted the offer enthusiastically and agreed to continue supporting the artificial organ laboratory part-time. A modified version of the Kwan-Gett heart was eventually implanted into a human in 1982.
Kwan-Gett spent the remainder of his career as a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Utah. After retiring in 1995, Dr. Kwan-Gett and his wife bought a motorhome and spent their time enjoying Utah’s national parks and making long treks to Alaska for fly-fishing. He and his wife now live in San Diego, enjoying the warmth, sunshine, and the company of their children and grandchildren.
While Dr. Kwan-Gett’s vital contributions to the success of the artificial heart are often overshadowed, it is clear that the field of cardiothoracic surgery would not be what it is without him. When asked to reflect on his career and life overall – from his beginnings in a large family in a small town to his training as an engineer and eventually as a surgeon – he paused and said, “There was just a lot of serendipity.”