Heart attack, or cardiac arrest, became a leading cause of death after the turn of the century. People had always suffered from cardiac problems, but they usually died from other causes, especially infectious diseases, long before reaching the age when heart problems threatened their well being. As medicine advanced and people lived longer, heart disease became a serious health issue. Claude Beck (1894-1971) pioneered heart surgery, especially operations to improve circulation in damaged heart muscles. He also devised ways to revive heart attack victims, including the defibrillator and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Beck had trained as a neurosurgeon at Harvard and Johns Hopkins before coming to University Hospitals of Cleveland in 1924 as resident and Crile Research Fellow in Surgery. He soon turned to cardiovascular research and surgery, and devoted the remainder of his career to that field. Beck was associate surgeon from 1928 until he retired in 1965. Western Reserve University School of Medicine appointed him demonstrator of surgery in 1924-25; professor of neurosurgery in 1940; and the first professor of cardiovascular surgery in the U.S. from 1952 until 1965.

Defibrilator prototypeIn the 1930s Claude Beck perfected operations to improve heart circulation. When he performed cardiac surgery, the heart sometimes went into ventricular fibrillation. (Heart muscles fibrillated, or twitched and contracted rapidly, disrupting the normal rhythmic heartbeat.) Beck could massage the heart, but this did not always stop the fibrillation and the patient would die on the operating table. Desperate for a remedy, he learned that a colleague at Western Reserve, the physiologist Carl J. Wiggers, had maintained circulation in laboratory animals by manual massage of the heart, followed by electrical defibrillation at a suitable time. Beck concluded that using electric shock to counteract fibrillation and restore normal heart rhythm would work for humans, too. In 1947 he successfully revived a patient for the first time. Subsequently, patients were resuscitated outside the operating room as well; and finally, massage and defibrillation across the intact chest have made cardiac resuscitation available at any place or time. Defibrillators have since been used daily in hospital emergency rooms and EMS units across the country.

Beck and his colleagues also developed cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques and beginning in 1950, with the help of the Cleveland Heart Society, they instructed medical professionals, in less than twenty years they trained more than 3,000 doctors and nurses, and in 1963, they added a course in closed-chest cardiopulmonary resuscitation for lay persons.


Centennial celebration: Claude S. Beck, 1894-1971 (University Hospital Archives, 1994).

J.A. Meyer,” Claude Beck and cardiac resuscitation”, Ann Thorac Surg. 45 (1988):103-5.

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