On January 30, 1948, a young Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina made medical history by successfully removing scar tissue from a heart valve of a young, incapacitated girl who had been given but a brief time to live. The technique employed by the 34-year old Horace G. Smithy was based upon two years of exhaustive research experimentation. Dr. Smithy's research included the design of a new instrument, known as a valvulotome, to cut scar tissue blocking heart valves of rheumatic fever victims. He subsequently operated upon six additional patients, four of whom survived.
Tragically, Dr. Smithy himself had valvular heart disease as a result of rheumatic fever during childhood, and his condition began rapidly deteriorating in 1948. He requested a noted surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to carry out the procedure on him, but before this could be arranged, Dr. Smithy died on October 28, 1948. Dr. Smithy's premature death deprived Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina the opportunity to become an early center for cardiac surgery. However, from his pioneering efforts, enormous progress has been made. Today, reliable prosthetic heart valves are widely available and surgery for valvular heart disease is standardized and carries a very low risk in most individuals.