Up Close and Personal: 'The Tinkerer'

By George P. Edmonston Jr.

Resting peacefully in a small shaded cemetery in Newberg, Ore., is another of Oregon’s best. His name was Miles Lowell Edwards, a graduate of Oregon Agricultural College in electrical engineering in 1924.

The very mention of his name typically draws blank stares. And yet, when the life of this extraordinary Oregonian is examined in detail, it’s easy to conclude that Miles Edwards, outside two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, may be one of the best ever born in the Beaver state.

For those who do know something of his life and remarkable career, the one part they remember is that, along with Portland cardiologist Albert Starr, Edwards collaborated to develop the world’s first efficient artificial heart valve. It is now used worldwide and has saved countless lives. Enjoying a reputation as a quiet tinkerer, Edwards’ revolutionary heart device was developed after he had retired and when he was 60 years old. It was spawned from numerous other inventions he had to his credit in such diverse fields as lumbering, aviation and the automotive industry. When he died on April 8, 1982, in Portland at age 84, he had 63 patents registered to his name.

It’s almost a miracle he lived as long as he did. He had rheumatic fever when he was 13 and then suffered with a severe recurrence when he was in his later teens. This experience taught him the potential of disease to damage the valves of the human heart and sparked a lifelong interest in using his genius to fix problems of this life-giving organ.

His rise to national fame began in 1941 while he was working as a Weyerhaeuser Timber Company engineer at its pulp plant in Longview, Wash. A few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Edwards heard that aircraft manufacturers were having difficulty pumping gasoline into airplane engines at high altitude.

For over four years, he had been working on a self-priming pump in his basement workshop. He thought maybe his new device might be modified to solve the problem of how to improve high altitude fuel flow. So he went back to tinkering to see if he could come up with a solution. To do so would require retooling his invention to produce a pump that would prevent vapor lock in aircraft fuel systems. The difference in atmospheric pressure after takeoff caused gasoline to boil and vaporize, conditions under which airplane engines failed.

In the spring of 1942, with a leave of absence from his employer, Edwards was off to the Boeing Airplane Company for further experimentation. Engineers at the company were intrigued by his work and wrote a very encouraging report. In Los Angeles, Western Gear Works heard about Edwards and invited him down for additional testing. After a year, Thompson Products Company of Cleveland, Ohio, at that time the world’s largest manufacturer of pumps for aircraft, joined the team and realized conclusively that Edwards had solved the problem. Thompson executives immediately did two things: they bought the rights to the pump and retained Edwards as a consulting engineer. By the time of the Korean War, 85 percent of all aircraft flying around the world were equipped with pumps designed by Edwards.

Throughout most of his life and wherever he lived, Edwards liked working at home. It was from these small home workshops that many of his best inventions first took shape, including one that would hold a car on a hill when the foot is off the brake, a gasoline mileage meter for cars, a turn indicator for automobiles, devices to handle flax, and the necessary instrumentation airplanes need to land in fog. He also invented a whirling wheel that effectively debarks logs.

His first heart valve was developed in 1949, but it was not until 1958 that he teamed up with Starr to put the finishing touches on the invention that has brought him his most fame, the Starr-Edwards heart valve. Two years later, the first successful human implantation of the device was made in the person of 52-year-old Philip Amundson, who in childhood had suffered from rheumatic fever and who lived a happy and healthy life for 10 years after his historic surgery until dying from an unrelated incident. Over the years, both Starr and Edwards have been widely honored by medical groups around the world for this life-saving contribution to medical science. Edwards is also credited with the invention of the "oxygenator," a device that acts as "lungs" during cardiovascular surgery.

The story of Starr’s first meeting with Edwards is legendary.

"He was an old man when I met him," the famous doctor told Oregonian writer Ann Sullivan in 1982. "Here he was, this guy with shaky hands, wearing sneakers and a golf jacket. I was strictly an Eastern establishment type. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if this guy’s a nut?’ When he left, I watched him out the window. That was my first glimmer of hope. He was driving a Cadillac. If it had been a pickup truck, that would have been the end."

Miles Lowell Edwards was born on Jan. 18, 1898, in Newberg, a member of one of Yamhill County’s most distinguished pioneer families. His grandfather, Jesse Edwards, founded the town after arriving in 1880 and went on to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the Willamette Valley. City historians today still refer to Jesse Edwards as "The Father of Newberg."

At one time or another, Jesse founded and was president of the First U.S. National Bank of Newberg, established Newberg’s first public preparatory school and owned a brick-yard company, a sawmill, a drain-tile factory, a mercantile store, and a warehouse for handling wheat. Jesse twice served as mayor of the town and was a member of the school board for many years.

Jesse was also one of the founders of Pacific Academy, now George Fox University and Herbert Hoover’s undergraduate alma mater. Edwards Hall at GFU is named for him and his wife, Mary. Their former residence, one of Newberg’s finest, is used today to house presidents of the university. As devout, lifelong Quakers, Jesse and Mary helped build the present Newberg Friends Church.

Miles' father, Clarence, was also an inventor, building a steam engine that gave Newberg its first electricity. Throughout his life, he generally credited his father with instilling in him his inventive ways.

Miles Edwards actually began his college education at George Fox in 1919, transferring after one year to Oregon Agricultural College, where he was known around campus as having the best car on campus. "Cars were scarce in those days," a 1944 article in The Oregon Stater reported, "but Edwards had worked up the prize of the day."

Like his grandfather and father before him, Edwards became wealthy during his lifetime. In the 1960s he founded American Edwards Laboratories in Orange County, Calif., which generated $300-$350 million in yearly, worldwide sales for local medical-related industries. Today the company is known as Edwards Lifesciences.

The company’s Web site has this to say about their namesake and his amazing legacy:

"Less than a year after introducing the world’s first commercially available replacement mitral valve, Edwards and Starr debuted its aortic counterpart. These innovations spawned a company, Edwards Laboratories, which went on to launch a number of additional "firsts" in medical technology. Continuing Edwards’ practice of collaborating with leading clinicians in the medical field, Edwards Laboratories worked with cardiologists Jeremy Swan and William Ganz to develop the first hemodynamic monitoring system for critically ill patients, and with vascular surgeon Thomas Fogarty to launch the first catheter technology to remove blood clots from the limbs. The Swan-Ganz and Fogarty brands of product lines became highly successful and still maintain worldwide leadership positions in their respective areas today.

"In 1966, Edwards Laboratories was purchased by American Hospital Supply Corporation and continued its pioneering work by developing and introducing its Carpentier-Edwards brand product line of replacement heart valves and heart valve repair products. Today, the Carpentier-Edwards heart valves, made of porcine and pericardial tissue, are the most widely prescribed tissue replacement valves in the world.

"In 1985, Baxter International Inc. purchased American Hospital Supply and established the Edwards organization as its CardioVascular Group. The CardioVascular Group, eager to transform itself into an even more successful business, became an independent cardiovascular company in 2000. Management and employees considered thousands of options for the name of the new company and at the end of the day, there was one clear choice. The legacy of quality and innovation established years before by Lowell Edwards made Edwards Lifesciences the overwhelming favorite.

"Edwards Lifesciences was 'reborn' when it was spun off from Baxter and its stock began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 2000. Every employee became an owner in the company, sharing in the pride and entrepreneurial spirit that Lowell Edwards must have felt when he started his revolutionary heart valve project more than 40 years earlier."

Edwards began his career with Bingham Pump Company in Portland in 1925, where he rose to the position of vice president. From 1937 to 1948 he served as plant engineer for Weyerhaeuser. In 1964, he received the American Medical Association’s Distinguished Service Award for Laymen. That same year, he shared OSU’s Distinguished Service Award with Linus Pauling (OAC, Class of 1922), and Ernest Wiegand, the inventor of the maraschino cherry.

He was very devoted to George Fox University throughout his life and served on the school’s Board of Trustees for over 17 years. In 1963, he was named GFU’s "Alumnus of the Year." In 1969, he and his wife, Margaret (Watt), a native of Portland and a 1927 OAC graduate, established a scholarship fund at George Fox that annually provides scholarships to students interested in science or health-related professions. In 1976, he gave an additional $100,000 to GFU, at that time one of the largest private donations ever made to the university. Margaret died in 2000 and was considered locally as an outstanding historian of the old Oregon country. She authored five books on local history, including one about her husband titled, Miles Lowell Edwards.

The two are buried side-by-side in Newberg’s Friends Cemetery near many other members of the Edwards family tree. His small gravestone sits flat to the ground with but one small inscription to describe his remarkable life: "Co-inventor of heart valves."