Fabric of the Heart

In the 1950s, Thomas Edman ’48, alumnus and then-chair of Textile’s knitting department, worked with Dr. Michael DeBakey, a pioneer cardiologist at Baylor University, to develop novel arterial replacements for heart surgery.

Dr. Michael DeBakey

Textiles have been part of medicine for as long as humans have tried to heal themselves.

The first eyed-needles appear to have been used both for surgery and to tie wounds together as far back as 30,000 BC—the Stone Age—according to the fossilized remains of Neolithic skulls.  

Around 1,600 BC, the Greek surgeon Galen of Pergamon used silk and catgut (made from the twisted intestines of sheep or horses) to suture together gladiators’ severed tendons.

Over the centuries as medicine evolved, caregivers refined the use of sterilized sutures and surgical materials, and in the 1900s, researchers began experimenting with different types of artificial fibers for operations. Most natural or “staple” fibers have a discrete length, which proved limiting for complex surgical procedures, like bypass surgeries that redirect blood flow. The development of synthetic polymers like nylon opened new avenues for physicians to explore.

The mid-20th century saw a series of world-changing breakthroughs in cardiac surgery, including the first open heart surgery using the heart-lung machine designed by alumnus John H. Gibbon Jr., MD ’27. Among the era’s magicians of the heart was the “Texas Tornado,” Michael E. DeBakey, MD.

DeBakey (1908-2008) was perhaps the first U.S. celebrity surgeon, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1965, which noted “the dexterous scalpel and deft needle of Baylor University’s professor of surgery have operated on more than 10,000 human hearts and arteries.”

In the 1950s, DeBakey had been working on the development of artificial blood vessels, but struggled to find a way to create tubes that were both strong enough to withstand the pressure of blood flow and flexible enough to bend and twist as needed.

As DeBakey relates in “Heart to Heart: The Twentieth Century Battle Against Cardiac Disease,” upon experimenting with shaping tubes on his own—using his wife’s sewing machine—and successfully grafting a homemade bifurcation tube on a patient in 1954, he needed a way to fashion the synthetic fiber Dacron into the custom shapes. 

His search led him to a socks-knitting factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, where someone directed him to an expert at the Philadelphia Textile Institute (now Jefferson) named Thomas Edman.

Thomas Edman

Edman was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1923 as Thomas Eidlitz. After serving the U.S. in WWII, he registered at Textile under the GI Bill for the four-year knitting degree program. Preternaturally talented purlwise, Edman later recalled, “I knew more about knitting than the instructor.”

After graduating, Edman completed a one-year specialty knitting course at the Leicester College of Technology in England. In fall 1953, he returned to his alma mater for an open house, where he ran into then-president Dr. Bertrand Hayward, who listened with interest about his experience abroad. Impressed, Hayward offered him a job in the knitting department. The following January, Edman arrived on Henry Avenue—only to find that Hayward remembered him, but not his name, then Eidlitz, “because of the unusual spelling,” he recounted.

The next week, he legally changed his name to Edman.

Edman quickly rose through the academic ranks, becoming chair of the knitting department and gaining a reputation for creativity and ingenuity in the textile industry.

Edman was intrigued by DeBakey’s challenge. He saw the potential in using novel textile structures for biomedical purposes, particularly their flexibility and adaptive properties. Synthetic textiles could be woven or knitted into tubes, ribbons, bifurcated structures, or braids. They could stretch or compress. 

Edman agreed to help, and funded by philanthropy from a grateful patient of DeBakey’s, he got to work.

At first Edman tried using a hand-cranked, Swiss-made knitting machine to craft the tubular grafts. He tinkered with it, replacing its needle-and-jack mechanism with one utilizing long and short needles. But it just wasn’t right.

Finally, he had a breakthrough. Edman realized the key to creating a strong, flexible tube was to knit fibers in a way that would allow the tube to expand and contract. No existing machine could do it, so he invented one that could.

Edman’s novel machine could knit fibers together in a seamless, multi-branched manner. It proved to be the crucial step in the development of artificial blood vessels.

Edman and DeBakey’s partnership laid the foundation for many of the advancements that have been made in cardiac surgery since then, which have saved and improved countless lives.

DeBakey would continue operating in the surgical theater well into his 90s. He would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and the Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors. 

But DeBakey’s and Edman’s lives would remain bound, in profound ways, by the fabric of the heart they developed together.

In 2007, upon hearing about the Congressional Gold Medal, Edman wrote to DeBakey to congratulate him. DeBakey wrote him back: “Your machine was the grandfather of all the current types of grafts. I am most grateful for your contributions in this regard and as fate determined, I benefited personally by having a Dacron graft used on me to repair an aortic dissection.”