North Salt Lake resident Walter Rohloff, a lifelong tool and dye maker, created all of the molds that shaped the first artificial heart at the University of Utah in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. He worked with the scientists to shape the one-of-a-kind tools needed to help create something that had never existed before.
“We’d look at the drawing, then take a block of metal and shape it into the mold according to the specifications we were given,” said Rohloff. The plastic that made up the heart’s casing and inner diaphragm could only be shaped on individualized molds. “There was no other way. We hardly ever made two of the same thing.”
Rohloff, who received his training in Germany, moved to Utah in the 1950s because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was working for the university’s main machine shop when he first heard about the artificial heart project.
“My boss knew of my liking for development, and asked me if I was interested,” said Rohloff. “Over 30 people applied, and somehow they took me.”
At first, Rohloff was working entirely on his own, using machinery he brought from home because the project’s head scientist, Dr. Willem Kolff, didn’t see the need for a fully-stocked shop.
“The shop only had a little old lathe and a few hand tools,” said Rohloff, who slowly but surely changed Kolff’s mind.
Eventually, Rohloff got his own staff, and they worked on their part of the dozens of different designs that the artificial heart went through before it went anywhere near a living being. When it was finally ready for that level of testing, the hearts were implanted in calves before moving on to a human.
“The first guy who had the heart implanted volunteered because he was going to live only two or three days longer,” he said. “Because of the artificial heart, he lived another 100 days.”
Though Rohloff insists that his part in the artificial heart project was very small, he still has a letter sent to him by Dr. Robert Jarvik (credited as the creator of the artificial heart) after the first human was implanted with the heart.
“Kolff Medical is proud of the success of your work and direct participation on the successful use of the lifesaving equipment on which Dr. Clark’s future depends,” reads the letter. “We extend our special appreciation for your expertise, commitment, and care.”