Dwight Harken; Pioneering Heart Surgeon

Dr. Dwight Emary Harken, considered the father of cardiac surgery and of intensive care units for critically ill heart patients and others, has died of pneumonia. He was 83.

Harken, who was a clinical professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School until his retirement, died Friday in Cambridge, Mass.

He established himself as the first surgeon to have repeated success in heart surgery during World War II when he removed bullets and shrapnel from the hearts of about 130 wounded soldiers without a single fatality.

“We discovered that the heart wasn’t such a mysterious and untouchable thing after all,” Harken said, after his record taught the medical world that the heart could withstand surgical intervention.


In 1951, Harken opened the world’s first intensive care unit at Harvard’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, out of his concern for survival of post-surgery patients. He later opened a second unit, which was named for him, at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.

In the 1960s, Harken and his colleagues developed the first pacemaker, artificial valves and other devices to help imperfect hearts function normally.

Born in Osceola, Iowa, Harken earned degrees at Harvard, trained at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and then went to London on a New York Academy of Medicine fellowship. He remained in London during the war, with the Army Medical Corps, where he did his pioneering cardiac surgery.

Harken taught at Tufts University in Massachusetts for two years and then went to Harvard, where he taught and practiced for 22 years.


He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Anne, a son, a daughter and six grandchildren.