Paul Rosenthal (202) 633-3656
From Peg Legs to Artificial Hearts
When the world's first, self-contained artificial heart was implanted in Robert Tools in 2001, his doctors hoped he would survive the 60-day trial period established by the Food and Drug Administration. Tools lived nearly five months, and his courageous effort to survive helped the medical world learn that this machine may someday become a routine device for helping patients with imminent heart failure to live longer and provide a reasonable quality of life. The AbioCor Total Artificial Heart that kept Tools alive is one of a number of artifacts found in a new Smithsonian display showcasing the history of prosthetics, implantable medical devices, and tools that enhance athletic performance.
Called Inventing Ourselves, this exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History raises issues of whether there is anything about humans that technology can't mimic, replace or alter. "Throughout history we have invented and used technologies and tools to assist or enhance our minds and bodies," said Art Molella, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian. "These tools, their creation and use, have implications for how we think about beauty, health, physical ability or intelligence. They also provide new insights into how our minds and bodies work, and raise questions about human life, ethical responsibilities, and the interrelationship between humans and the tools we use."
Developed by the Lemelson Center, Inventing Ourselves focuses on three significant areas: design, performance and reinventing the body through technology. Artifacts are displayed in three separate showcases. The "design" display case, featuring artificial arms and legs, explores the creative tension between devices designed to mimic the body's appearance and those that attempt to replicate the body's function. It features a wooden "peg leg" from the 19th century, as well as a modern "Flex-Foot" prosthetic limb. The "performance" display presents marathon running as a case study in inspiring new inventions, from shoes to heart monitors. The showcase highlights the "Smart Shirt," a prototype, wearable monitoring device, which may be used one day for gauging athletic performance.
The third showcase, featuring implantable devices, displays the AbioCor heart, one of the most sophisticated of medical inventions. Equipped with an internal motor, it pumps blood through the lungs and to the rest of the body, simulating the rhythm of a heartbeat. Displayed with the heart is "Yorick," a plastic human skeleton equipped with a variety of implantable medical devices. Assembled by the FDA, "Yorick" was used as a teaching tool to show the range of internal technologies available to extend and enhance life.