Obituary: George J. Magovern / Pioneering heart surgeon, inventor

Nov. 17, 1923 - Nov. 4, 2013

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A world-renowned pioneer of open-heart and transplant surgery and inventor of important surgical tools and procedures, George J. Magovern turned Pittsburgh into a destination for those requiring life-saving treatments.

In 1958, with open-heart surgery in its infancy, he was recruited to Allegheny General Hospital to develop a heart program, which under his direction burgeoned with an international reputation for inventive procedures and successful outcomes.

Among many notable accomplishments, Dr. Magovern developed the first suture-less heart valve, performed the world's second lung transplant in 1963 and AGH's first heart transplant in 1969.

Dr. Magovern, 89, of Fox Chapel died Monday.

"He left a huge footprint," said Ronald V. Pellegrini, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Forbes Regional Hospital who trained under Dr. Magovern. "He built a program at Allegheny General Hospital that was not only the envy, but also was emulated by places across the country. Those guys at AGH were doing almost 2,000 open hearts a year and doing a tremendous amount of good work.

"They had the highest quality heart program at the time that was right up there with the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic -- big numbers with excellent outcomes," he said.

Born and educated in New York City, Dr. Magovern trained at Kings County Hospital in New York City's borough of Brooklyn after World War II and completed his cardiothoracic training at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1958. He did residencies at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York and the New York Medical Center. He was certified by the American Board of Surgery in 1955 and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery in 1960.

AGH recruited him 1958 to begin doing open-heart surgeries, which were very high risk because they had to be done quickly for the patient to survive.

When Dr. Magovern encountered a problem, he tried solving it. That was the case in 1962, when he successfully implanted the nation's first suture-less heart valve -- the Magovern-Cromie Heart Valve -- that he and Harry Cromie developed in a machine shop in Sharpsburg. The valve quickly twisted into place to reduce surgery time, resulting in vastly improved outcomes.

In a 1990 interview, Dr. Magovern said he was influenced to go into medicine by his grandfather and two uncles, each doctors. "I realized early in my career that it was accepted that you did a limited amount of things for heart patients and that was it. And they were not getting anywhere, in my opinion. It became obvious that valve problems were mechanical, and I decided surgery was the way to go."

He performed the world's second lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian in 1963 only after the hospital's chief of pulmonary surgery, who was adamantly opposed to the surgery, left town for a few days, said Bartley Griffith, the former chief of cardiac surgery at UPMC and now professor of surgery at the University of Maryland.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Magovern began performing coronary artery bypass surgery for the treatment of coronary artery disease, which helped the AGH heart program to grow exponentially. By 1998, it was the state's largest heart program and 10th largest nationwide, said his son George Magovern Jr., a cardiothoracic surgeon serving as chairman of AGH's department of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery.

His son also said Dr. Magovern developed the Allegheny Life Flight system, which was the first east of the Mississippi at a time when AGH opened the region's first trauma center. He also pioneered the use of a heart bypass procedure to treat traumatic aortic injury in victims of motor vehicle accidents.

In 1985, Dr. Magovern pioneered the first successful biventricular heart device, in which two mechanical pumps took over heart function until the organ healed.

As an entrepreneur, Dr. Magovern worked with Gerald R, McGinnis, now 80, of Marco Island, Fla., and Murrysville to start Respironics Inc., to develop a long line of medical devices to improve respiratory function, including the continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine to treat sleep apnea. The company went public in 1988 and reached $1.3 billion in annual sales with 5,500 employees, Mr. McGinnis said.

In 1984 and 1985, Dr. Magovern was president of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and from 1984 to 1990 was director of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery of the American Medical Association. Pittsburgh Magazine recognized him in 1999 as one of the "100 Most Influential Pittsburghers of the Century."

Dr. Pellegrini said he once assisted Dr. Magovern in an open-heart surgery of a 15-year-old girl to see if a heart tumor could be removed.

"He had tears running down his face behind his surgical mask," Dr. Pellegrini said. "'My God, young man, we can't help this girl,' he said. It showed the compassion he had for his patients. He was just a good human being from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head -- a wonderful man and a great man.

"He made the world better."

Dr. Magovern's wife, Margaret Ann Magovern, is deceased.

In addition to his son, Dr. Magovern is survived by four daughters: Mary Magovern Scott of Fox Chapel, Susan Frances Magovern of Ithaca, N.Y., Frances Magovern O'Connor of Hampton, and Ann Margaret Magovern of Oakland, Calif.; one sister, Dorothea Magovern of Fox Chapel; 14 grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

A Christian Burial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Saint Scholastica Church in Aspinwall. The family requests memorial contributions to the Allegheny Heart Institute, 320 E. North Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15212.

David Templeton: or 412-263-1578; Mackenzie Carpenter:, 412-263-1949.

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