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Icons of Progress

Smarter Healthcare Management


Although IBM’s involvement today with healthcare has turned to connecting organizations’ care delivery systems and data, and turning that data into clinical and business insights for better outcomes, that wasn’t always the case. Over the past 100 years, the company has played a role in some surprising milestones in health and medicine.

A heart outside the body

In 1946, Dr. John Gibbon, who built the first heart-lung machine nine years earlier and went on to perform the first human heart bypass operation in 1953, began working with Thomas Watson Sr., the president of IBM. Gibbon, Watson and five IBM engineers created an improved heart-lung machine that “minimized haemolysis [the rupturing of red blood cells and the release of hemoglobin into surrounding fluid] and prevented air bubbles from entering the circulation.” Early testing demonstrated potential for a 10 percent mortality rate, but it led the way for more effective machines. These, in turn, allowed patients to be sustained mechanically while surgeons repaired or even replaced their hearts.

The end of polio

In the mid-twentieth century, polio was a disease to be reckoned with; its emblematic image was of paralyzed patients—mostly children—in iron lungs, bulky machines that breathed for them. All that began to change in 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk reported the results of a nationwide testing of a vaccine for the contagious virus.

It was the largest vaccine field trial in history. More than 1.8 million elementary school children took part in the United States, Canada and Finland. The results were spectacular: prevention in 60 to 70 percent of those receiving the vaccine.

From a statistical point of view, the polio field trial was unique in the history of epidemiological study. The trial results were evaluated at the University of Michigan. The study produced some 1.8 million IBM punched cards that held 144 million pieces of information about the tested children and allowed the data to be analyzed by computer.

Harvesting blood’s components

Most people haven’t heard of an apheresis machine, but for those afflicted with leukemia and other maladies, the device can mean the difference between life and death. In simplest terms, an apheresis machine takes blood from a host (a patient or healthy donor), removes particular components, such as cancerous white blood cells, and returns the remainder. The process has saved thousands of lives.

Saving a life was uppermost on George Judson’s mind in 1962; his son had leukemia. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US had a promising treatment, removing cancerous leukocytes (white blood cells) from the patient. But the process was extremely slow and labor-intensive. Judson, an IBM engineer, set out to change that. He believed blood could be removed and returned to the patient at the same time.

The engineer approached Dr. Emil Freireich, a hematologist and senior NIH investigator, with his vision. Skeptical at first, Freireich sketched out the broadest requirements for the hypothetical device.

“Judson just looked at the drawing and said ‘OK’ and went back to New York,” Freireich said. “About six months later, he reappeared in my office carrying a bunch of heavy hardware made out of plastic, screws and bolts. I couldn’t believe it.”

The prototype worked to some degree, but not well. A later demonstration was plagued by leaking seals. But Judson and Freireich made more modifications until the IBM 2990, the world’s first continuous-flow apheresis machine, was officially introduced in 1966.