Today, about 800,000 people in the U.S. rely on implanted defibrillators to protect them from potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmias. They might not know that Michel Mirowski, the inventor of the lifesaving devices, barely escaped the Holocaust with his own life.
While his name is now associated at the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute with a professorship, lectureship, award and fellowship, his influence in cardiology is recognized worldwide.
Mirowski was born in Warsaw, Poland. The Nazis invaded in 1939, imprisoning him and his family and others. At 15 years old, Mirowski escaped the Warsaw ghetto and fled to the Soviet-occupied region of Poland. Daughter Ariella Rosengard shares that her grandfather’s last words to his son expressed hope that he become a physician.
When Mirowski returned to Warsaw at the war’s end, he learned that his family had been killed, including his 8-year-old brother. He honored his father’s wish and enrolled in medical school in Lyon, France, where he met his wife, Anna.
The two moved to Israel for Mirowski’s medical residency. There, says Rosengard, he met Harry Heller, chief of medicine at Tel HaShomer Hospital, who became his mentor. At one point Heller recommended that Mirowski complete a fellowship with Helen Taussig, a pioneer in pediatric cardiology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, which he did.
Mirowski returned to Israel from Baltimore in the early 1960s. Soon thereafter Heller began suffering from ventricular arrhythmias. Unfortunately, Heller chose not to use an external defibrillator, resisting the inherent limitations of being hooked to the machine and remaining in a hospital interminably. He soon succumbed to ventricular fibrillation.
The death of his key friend and mentor prompted Mirowski to search for another treatment option for patients like Heller. He began to conceive of how to miniaturize the external defibrillator and make it completely automatic, thus permitting patients to survive outside a hospital. Unable to find support for his invention in Israel, he returned to Baltimore.
In 1968, Mirowski became the first director of the coronary care unit at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. He devoted great effort and nearly two decades to developing his invention. “He was lucky to have my mother by his side because I am not sure he could have developed the implantable defibrillator without her. She always cheered him on and encouraged him,” says Rosengard.
Bringing the implantable cardioverter defibrillator to patients was not easy. Funding was only part of the problem. Convincing the cardiology community was even harder; manuscripts were routinely rejected by specialists in the field, and experts scoffed at the idea. But eventually, Mirowski found financial support and a close team to help him, including Morton Mower, Alois Langer and Steven Heilman, all of whom were named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.
Prior to Mirowski’s death in 1990, he was able to see his device implanted in thousands of people, many of whom thanked him for saving their lives.
To honor her husband’s contributions to cardiology, Anna Mirowski established the Michel Mirowski, M.D. Professorship in Cardiology in 1998, as well as the annual Michel Mirowski M.D. Lectureship in Cardiology, which will be held on Dec. 7, 2018.
The Mirowskis’ daughters, all physicians, established the Michel Mirowski, M.D. Discovery Award in honor of their parents, to support a physician-scientist doing early research in the specialty.
“This is the best way to keep our parents’ memory alive,” says Rosengard. “It honors our father’s mission of bringing a novel idea to the patients and recognizes our mother’s invaluable support.”
“The Mirowskis’ legacy of personal, professional and philanthropic contributions to the Heart and Vascular Institute cannot be overstated,” says Ronald Berger, interim director of the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins. “Their collective commitments continue to encourage the kind of innovation in cardiology for which Dr. Mirowski was so well-known.”