Notes on an inventor whose creativity saved half a million lives: the quiet engineering wizard Donald Shiley '51.

He was sitting in a recliner watching a football game, but he wasn’t watching the football game. He was musing, dreaming, seeing things in his head.

In his head there was a heart. In the heart there is a door called the aortic valve. The door opens and closes forty million times a year. When it does so cleanly you live. When it stutters you die. When it starts to stutter you grow pale and tired and breathless and surgeons desperately open your chest and try to fix your original door and if they cannot fix it they insert a plastic door and hope that helps.

Back then, nearly fifty years ago, when Donald Shiley was sprawled in his recliner not watching football, plastic valves worked okay but not flawlessly, and if ever there was an endeavor where you are looking for flawless it is heart function; but the valves then tended to get stuck, to flutter, to regulate flow imperfectly, and this haunted Donald Shiley, for he had been intimately involved with the first manmade valves, working with the legendary Oregon engineer Lowell Edwards, working with the legendary Oregon heart surgeon Albert Starr, helping to design the valves, craft them, test them, redesign them, explain them to a world startled by the advent of the artificial.

Shiley stared off into space, hearts in his head.

His wife Darlene says she still, many years later, finds him in his chair, at his workbench, at the window, gazing at nothing, seeing much, and when she asks him what he’s thinking about, his answer is always the same: what if...?

Then he sat up straight.

It just... came to me, he says of the epiphany that led to a new heart valve and many thousands of hearts repaired and lives saved all over the world. It just came to me. I jumped up and ran to my workbench and sketched it, and then I hurried to the lab and built a model, and it turned out that it worked. That was a good day.

*

Born in Yakima, he says, in the orchard country of western Washington. Fruit and vegetables everywhere: pears, peaches, apples, berries, cherries, hops. I picked pears, peaches, apples, berries, cherries, hops. My dad ran fruit. We had five acres, mostly pears and peaches. I picked so many pears and peaches when I was a kid that I haven’t eaten a pear or a peach in eighty years.

I had two brothers. We worked awful hard. All of us did, my brothers and my dad and my mom and my grandmothers who lived with us.

I was the one who fixed things. Stuff breaks down, you know, and you either pay someone to fix it or you fix it. But I liked machines. I liked the way they are ideas that get built.

I burnt my hand terribly when I was about two years old, and sometimes I think maybe I got to be handy partly from fear I’d be crippled, you know? Like I had to prove I could use that hand. That might be part of it. You wonder.

Well, my dad became a salesman, and we moved to Portland, and Benson Tech offered engineering courses, which was a natural for me, so I went to Benson. I earned a scholarship to Oregon State University so I went there but I only had money enough for one year so I had to leave. Then came the Navy. I got a very fine education in the Navy — chemistry, radar, you name it. When I got out of the Navy I was 27 years old and itching to finish college, and the University of Portland had this brand-new gleaming engineering building then, and that swayed me, it really did, and so I enrolled up on the bluff. I was with the first class who walked into that new building. I had a lovely time up there. I earned a scholarship in chemistry, which is how I came to meet Brother Godfrey Vassallo, a fascinating man.

Well, I graduated in 1951, first among the engineering students, I was proud of that, and then met Lowell Edwards, and went to work in his laboratory, and that led to everything after.

*

When Donald Shiley graduated from the University in 1951, there was no such thing as valve replacement in the human heart.

In 1955 a new engineering feat, the heart-lung machine, made valve replacement possible, though patients who survived the operation died soon thereafter. Donald Shiley and Lowell Edwards started working with the deft surgeon Al Starr. In 1960 Starr helped invent, and was the first to successfully implant, a mechanical mitral valve — the Starr-Edwards caged ball valve.

By then, says Starr in his brisk articulate confident way, Donald was a master engineer, having worked with Edwards on endless experiments and iterations; and by then Donald was absorbed primarily by designing mechanical aortic valves; and right about then Donald saw that there was a great deal of possibility in the biomechanical field for an energetic entrepreneur, and he had guts, so he started his own company.

He started modestly, Donald did, continues Doctor Starr, with tracheotomy tubes and such, but then came his epiphany about the tilting disk valve. I remember him telling me that he jumped right out of his chair and ran to his workbench.

Well, Donald then teamed with a fine surgeon in California named Jerry Kaye, and so came the Kaye-Shiley tilting disk valve, and then he approached the heart surgeon Denton Cooley in Texas, but Cooley declined to collaborate, which is a shame because a Cooley-Shiley valve would have been a remarkable thing, so then Donald went to work with a young heart surgeon in Sweden named Viking Bjork, and so came the Bjork-Shiley tilting disk valve in 1971, and that valve went all over the world, and the Shiley Company went on to do very well indeed.

*

It is a tad understated to say that the Shiley Company did well. It made many millions of dollars. It sent heart valves all over the world into many thousands of hearts. It was one of the first companies in the world to invent clean rooms for the production of intricately machined medical equipment. It employed thousands of people and thus fed thousands of children and supported thousands of families and helped stitch the social fabric of towns and cities and schools and churches and economies and counties and clans. It was one of the first medical companies in the world to invite its employees to be shareholders. It was one of the first companies in the world to invite spouses of salespeople to meetings so that the spouses could hear and see for themselves why their husbands and wives would be working so hard to provide the means for hearts to be repaired around the world. It was one of those rare companies where the founder and the boss and the most-respected employee were all the same guy, the quiet man from Yakima who used to pick pears and peaches and apples and berries and cherries and hops.

It may be that one of the reasons the boss was so respected was because even as the company got huge and he got to be remoter and remotest from the workbench he remained by all accounts the best machinist in the building. It may be because even as he became a millionaire and the recipient of international honors for his inventions he never gave up his mill and lathe and tools, which are still in the family today. It may be that he was liked and respected because money and attention didn’t reduce and seduce him, which is so often the case with slather and blather.

Proof that money and honey didn’t change him much: He sold the company finally, to Pfizer, in his fifties, because he could no longer bear to run the company.

I wanted to get back to tinkering and dreaming, he says. I realized one day that I hadn't had tools in my hands for a long time. I wanted that feeling again. I wanted to putter around with a mill and lathe and pencil, with my drafting board and books, my old oak desk, my workbench. I missed my tools. We had a good company and I am proud of what we did but it was time. I was tired and empty. And right then I met Darlene.

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