Obituary: Dr. Edward Smeloff pioneered Sacramento open-heart surgery

03/27/2012 12:00 AM

03/26/2012 10:38 PM

Dr. Edward A. Smeloff Sr., a renowned heart surgeon who developed and implanted one of the first mechanical heart valves, died Friday of respiratory failure, his family said. He was 86.

Dr. Smeloff was a trailblazing figure in cardiac surgery, which was practiced by few doctors when he settled in Sacramento in 1957. He started a research lab in the basement at Sutter Memorial Hospital and performed the first open-heart surgery in Central California in 1959.

With help from bioengineers at California State University, Sacramento, he created and implanted one of the first mechanical heart valves in 1962. Known as the Smeloff-Cutter valve, the device has been implanted in more than 80,000 patients and received notice in many medical journals for lasting several decades.

Dr. Smeloff, who worked with legendary heart surgeons Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey, pioneered other advances in cardiac procedures. He refined valve replacements in children and improved operating room designs. His basement lab became the foundation for Sutter Heart & Vascular Institute, a comprehensive cardiac center in Sacramento where more than 40,000 heart surgeries have been performed.

"Sutter Health is built on what Ed's team did," said Dr. Michael Ingram, the institute's assistant medical director. "He was a gentleman and a master surgeon."

Dr. Smeloff was born in 1925 and raised in Allentown, Pa. He was the second of three sons of Beatrice and Nicholas Smeloff, a Russian immigrant who worked as an electrical engineer for the local utility company.

"He was severely asthmatic as a boy, and he would spend summers in the Poconos bedridden for a considerable time," said his son, Ed Jr., a former Sacramento Municipal Utility District director. "That got him interested in medicine and finding cures."

Dr. Smeloff graduated from Temple Medical School in 1948 and specialized in thoracic surgery at University of Pittsburgh before he was drafted into the Air Force in 1953. While serving as a medical officer at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, he read a medical journal article about a surgeon in Sweden who was experimenting with heart surgery.

"It was a brand new specialty, and I thought it would be fun to be in on the beginning," he told The Bee in 2002.

After starting his practice in Sacramento, Dr. Smeloff assembled a team of experts to set up the region's first cardiac research lab in a former morgue at Sutter Memorial Hospital. Using surplus supplies he bought at McClellan Air Force Base, the group began working on artificial devices and practicing techniques for heart surgery.

"We worked every Saturday, and nobody got paid," he said.

Dr. Smeloff had four children with his wife of 49 years, Jennie, who died in 1998. He lived in Hawaii after retiring in 1989 but returned to Sacramento two years ago.

"He had two brothers who predeceased him, but he was very close to all of our cousins in both families," his son said. "We did family reunions at Lake Tahoe and other parts of the country every couple of years, and that was very important to him."

 

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