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  Current Issue: Summer 2003

What if

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

By Brian Doyle

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.

*

She was an actress, singer, star of local musicals and plays. An only child, fond of the grand gesture, fond of adopting and adapting characters. Gregarious, hilarious, generous. One night after a performance she is given flowers by an admirer. Next night she meets the admirer, a quiet man, some sort of a businessman, and, she says, I don’t know what came over me, there was just something about him, a quiet confidence, a considerate calm. He was comfortable in his own skin, you know? And how many people are really like that? He was comfortable being himself, which made him genuinely interested in other people, and that’s very attractive. At least it was to me. Still is. I suppose the measure of how much I liked him was that soon I let him drive my car, and I loved that car.

      Well, pretty soon after he drove my car he had somehow gotten me back to Catholicism, and pretty soon after that we were married, at Saint Francis de Sales Church, and in all the years since then I cannot remember a day when Donald wasn’t as calm and open and gracious as the night I met him for the first time backstage. We’ve traveled the world since then, all over, and we have had many adventures sad and joyous, and we have spent many years together, and I suppose what I most admire about him still is what attracted me in the first place: He is an honorable man, a man of his word, an honest man. Which is maybe the highest compliment you can give another human being, you know?

*

Donald and Darlene Shiley have an apartment high above Balboa Park in San Diego. The vast bay is a dream in the west windows and the muscular trees of old California fill the east. The crisp light and salted air are blessings. Donald Shiley is talking about the feeling of tools, the heft in his hand, and the fragile crackle of the paper that lined the boxes of peaches and pears he picked as a child, and the mangled map of the seared scar in his hand, and the way his two grandmothers ruled the kitchen when he was a boy, and how really maybe what he learned most at the University of Portland was that relentless curiosity is indeed a grace, and that talents have to be sharpened and used in order to matter, and that the marriage of discipline and dreams leads to the most extraordinary children, to creations that can change the world and save lives and give children back their fading fathers and make pale children whole again and come as close to sparking resurrections as human beings can get.

      I sit quietly as he tells me stories.
I watch his hands. I watch the way his wife looks at him sidelong with a grin. I watch his face as he tries to explain what it was like to have heart valves in his head all the time back then, morning and night, at work and at home, every hour of the day, staring at them in his dreams, turning them this way and that, pondering flow and pressure and life and death, until the moment it just came to him and he jumped out of his chair and ran to his workbench and the world was never quite the same.

      That was a good day, he says. Yes it was.

*

You must understand, says Doctor Starr. The human condition demands people like Donald. It is our nature to dream and to have the courage to implement our dreams. It is our nature to sense something out there before us and reach for it. And there is some-thing quintessentially and prototypically American about Donald. I am not sure any other culture would produce a man quite like Donald. He begins in an orchard in the rural west, and with amazing energy and freedom of thought, he changes the field of medicine forever. I admire that man. I admire the courage of his mind. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He is a great man.

*

Donald Shiley is staring out the window at San Diego Bay. I am not sure he is seeing San Diego Bay. I sit silently; interrupting this particular man’s musing seems like an exquisitely bad idea.

      But then he peers at me and smiles, and I ask him a question I have long wanted to ask: What would he say to the University’s three thousand students and twenty thousand alumni, to the two hundred professors and five hundred employees, to the many thousands of people around the world who savor the University’s mad ideas and dreams and ambitions? What would he who wandered quietly through Engineering Hall when new, who wandered the bluff at night when the stars shone and the river gleamed, who leapt from our laboratories and classrooms into a most remarkable life and career, what would he say to everyone else who has the University somewhere in the hidden chambers of their hearts?

      Find out what God gave you, he says quietly, and then sharpen and hone and train your gift, and then go and use it. Go.

Brian Doyle (bdoyle@up.edu) is the editor of this magazine, and the author most recently of The Wet Engine, about “the muddle & mangle & music & miracle of hearts.” The University will present an honorary doctorate of public service to Donald Shiley ’51 on May 7, at Commencement.