Donald P. Shiley dies at 90; co-inventor of Bjork-Shiley heart valve


Donald P. Shiley, who was the co-inventor of an artificial valve that revolutionized heart surgery and who later used his fortune to support medical research, the arts and education, has died. He was 90.

Shiley died July 31 in San Diego after several years of failing health, including the eye disorder macular degeneration.

Shiley donated tens of millions of dollars to San Diego’s blue-chip institutions: the Old Globe Theatre, UC San Diego, KPBS public radio and television, Scripps Clinic and the University of San Diego.

He and his wife, Darlene, were also members and benefactors of the UCSD Chancellor’s Associates, which funds numerous projects, including scholarships, scientific research and a school for disadvantaged youth.

“San Diego is a much better place because of the extraordinary generosity of Donald and Darlene Shiley,” said Lou Spisto, executive producer of the Old Globe.

Shiley also provided $12 million in 2007 for the renovation and expansion of the engineering building at his alma mater in Oregon, the University of Portland.

“Donald was a brilliant man, a man of surpassing creativity and energy, but even more a man of immense quiet generosity,” said Father E. William Beauchamp, University of Portland president.

Shiley had lived in San Diego for decades, in a penthouse overlooking Balboa Park. He also had a ranch home in Pauma Valley in northeast San Diego County.

Born in Yakima, Wash., in 1920, Shiley joined his brothers in picking fruit on the family farm during the Great Depression. It was an experience that left him with a dedication to hard work but an aversion to eating pears and apples.

“I was the one who fixed things,” he told Portland Magazine in 2006. “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.”

He attended Oregon State University on a scholarship but left to join the Navy. After World War II, he enrolled at the University of Portland, a Catholic institution, to study engineering and chemistry. He graduated in 1951, first in his class.

In the 1950s he worked in the new field of bioengineering, which was brimming with possibilities and challenges. He worked at Edwards Laboratories in Santa Ana, the first manufacturer of artificial heart valves.

With partners, he invented an artificial valve that was a quantum improvement over previous valves. “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,” he once said.

In 1964 he formed his own company, Shiley Laboratories, and with a new partner, Swedish cardiologist Dr. Viking Bjork, refined what became known as the Bjork-Shiley heart valve.

By 1971 the valve was in mass production. He is also credited with other life-saving medical devices, including the Shiley tracheotomy tube.

He sold his Irvine-based company to Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in 1979 so he could get back to “tinkering and dreaming.”

Under Pfizer’s ownership, the Shiley company was the subject of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation into allegations that a variant of the Bjork-Shiley valve had flaws which proved fatal in many patients and that the company withheld information that would have warned the public. The FDA ordered the device off the market in 1986 and reached a $20-million settlement with the company in 1994.

Much of Shiley’s philanthropy reflected his personal interests.

Stricken with eye disease, he funded ophthalmological research and treatment. He underwrote an Alzheimer’s research center in honor of his wife’s mother, who suffered from the affliction. His wife was an actress when they met and, in 2006, Shiley donated $20 million to the Old Globe.

His Catholic faith was also central to his life and his financial giving. “He was not Catholic when he came” to the University of Portland, his wife once said, “but he certainly was one when he came out.”

Soon after meeting the former Darlene Loran backstage after a performance of “The Lion in Winter” at a Berkeley theater in 1976, Shiley persuaded her to return to the Catholic Church. She did, and the young actress and the 57-year-old widower were married in 1978.

The couple donated more than $10 million to the University of San Diego, a Catholic institution, for a theater and a science and technology center. In 1996, Shiley Theatre was the site of a presidential debate.

The Shiley Eye Center, part of the UC San Diego Health System, treats 120,000 patients a year, and its mobile children’s eye unit examines and treats 12,000 children a year.

Besides his wife, Shiley is survived by four children, Dawn, Jennifer, Michael and Patrick; and five grandchildren.