American Surgical Association Transactions

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1915 – 2015


American Surgical Association member James Alexander Helmsworth, MD passed away on August 27, 2015 at the age of 100 years. Dr. Helmsworth was a pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon who made numerous seminal contributions to American surgery. Most notably, he is widely credited with important contributions to the development of the heart lung machine that coincided with the evolution of modern cardiac surgery.

Dr. Helmsworth was born in Jamestown North Dakota in the spring of 1915 to parents Frederick and Irma Helmsworth. He attended Jamestown College from 1931-1935 and subsequently received his medical training at the University of Pennsylvania from 1935-1939. He remained in Philadelphia for internship and then moved to Cincinnati to complete his surgical residency at the University of Cincinnati from 1941-1949. The department was chaired by Drs. Mont Reid, Max Zinninger, and B. Nolan Carter during those years.

Like many others, his surgical training was interrupted by World War II from 1945 to 1947. During that time Dr. Helmsworth rose from the rank of Captain to the rank of Major and served as the Chief of Surgical Services in Okinawa, Seoul, and Osaka in the Pacific theater.

Dr. Nolan Carter established a cardiovascular research laboratory at the University of Cincinnati and Dr. Helmsworth’s academic career evolved in that environment. Following his residency training, he remained on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati and in 1951, Dr. Helmsworth teamed with Dr. Samuel Kaplan, a cardiologist, and Dr. Leland Clark, a chemist, to build one of the first functional heart-lung machines. The device was subsequently used to treat clinical patients with congenital heart defects at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital including one of the first open heart surgeries reported by the American Medical Association. He was only 37 years of age at the time. Other seminal contributions during his career included work to developing now common procedures and techniques such as visualizing the coronary arteries in a beating heart (1950) and one of the first pediatric heart transplants (1969). He authored more than 60 scientific papers in addition to book chapters and lectures. He advanced through the ranks of the University of Cincinnati to full Professor of Surgery in 1969 and served as Director of the Division of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery from 1970 until 1982. He was a member of multiple academic societies including the American Surgical Association and the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society.

Following his retirement in 1985, Dr. Helmsworth pursued interests in woodworking and sculpting. He became an expert furniture maker and attended sculpting class three days a week until shortly before his death. He is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.

Dr. James Alexander Helmsworth brought surgical insights and technical expertise to the collaborative developments in cardiac surgery that led to the evolution of techniques and devices that have impacted countless children and adults with heart disease. His accomplishments are testimony to the many contributions of the members of the American Surgical Association to medical care throughout the world.