Cardiologist Morton Mower dies; invented lifesaving heart device

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Working out of Sinai Hospital in Baltimore throughout the 1970s, cardiologists Morton Mower and Michel Mirowski developed a potentially lifesaving heart device, an electronic implant about the size of a cigarette pack. Buried under the skin of the abdomen, the device promised to monitor and correct irregular heartbeats, delivering a jolt that could shock the heart back to a normal rhythm.

But their cardiology peers were skeptical that it could work. “We were these crazy guys who wanted to put a time bomb in people’s chests, so to speak,” Dr. Mower recalled in a 2015 interview with the Lancet medical journal.

Although their battery-powered invention was initially dismissed in medical-journal editorials, the implantable cardioverter defibrillator — or ICD — became a powerful tool for monitoring the heart and preventing sudden cardiac arrest, when an abnormal heartbeat short-circuits the heart and causes it to stop beating.

Implanted in a patient for the first time in 1980 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, ICDs are now a standard treatment for people who have suffered heart problems like ventricular fibrillation, a dangerous type of irregular heartbeat that was previously managed through surgeries or drugs. By 2018, about 800,000 people in the United States were using the device, according to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article.

In an email, American Heart Association President Donald M. Lloyd-Jones said ICDs “have transformed our ability to monitor and immediately deliver lifesaving defibrillation to patients with, or at high risk for, potentially lethal cardiac rhythm problems.”

The device was one of dozens of inventions pioneered by Dr. Mower, who used his newfound wealth from the ICD patent to become a noted art collector and philanthropist, donating to groups including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Jewish National Fund-USA, which credited him with helping develop water infrastructure in Israel. He was still conducting medical research until he died April 25 at 89, at a hospital in Denver.

The cause was cancer, said his son, Mark Mower.

ICDs are rapidly altering the care of some people who live on the edge of sudden cardiac death

Although Dr. Mower did not come up with the idea for the ICD, he was quick to sign on to the research project after learning about the idea from his colleague Mirowski, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who had studied in Israel and was inspired by the death of his mentor to develop a new treatment for ventricular fibrillation.

Artificial pacemakers already existed to help the heart keep beating. Mirowski sought to create a similar implant device to treat irregular heartbeats, envisioning an automated, miniaturized version of the bulky defibrillator paddles that were used to resuscitate patients in emergencies. “I could n’t think of any good reason why it could n’t be done,” said Dr. Mower, who taught himself the fundamentals of electrical engineering as part of his research.

“I remember he had his kind of mad scientist lab in the basement,” his son said in a phone interview, “where he would bring home discarded medical equipment — an old EKG machine or an old defibrillator — and basically dissect them, figure out how they worked, rejigger them to make something fun and funky and show me and my sister.”

Within a month after they started collaborating, Dr. Mower and Mirowski repurposed a defibrillator paddle to test an ICD prototype on a dog.

They found some early success but struggled to secure funding before partnering with a small medical equipment company called Medrad in 1972, and then worked for another eight years to translate their research from animals to humans. M. Stephen HeilmanMedrad’s founder, and Alois A. Langer, the lead project engineer, were ultimately credited on the patent as co-inventors. All four men were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.

When the Food and Drug Administration formally approved the ICD in 1985, it estimated the device could save 10,000 to 20,000 lives a year. The device was further refined and miniaturized, and by 1990 — the year Mirowski died of cancer — studies found that the ICD reduced the death rate for patients with an erratic heartbeat from more than 40 percent to around 2 percent.

Patients who were aware when the device went off frequently described the jolt as a somewhat painful, if lifesaving, kick in the chest. “It’s not something they find pleasant, but it’s not terribly excruciating,” Dr. Mower noted in an interview with the Miami Herald. “And it’s not something they wouldn’t have again, especially in light of the alternative.”

Morton Maimon Mower was born in Baltimore on Jan. 31, 1933, and raised in Frederick, Md. His father was a cobbler, his mother a homemaker, and he spent boyhood summers in Atlantic City, working at his uncle’s seaside bath houses and selling toys on the boardwalk.

A childhood polio diagnosis helped steer him toward medicine, although Dr. Mower said it was only while visiting his uncle that he became fully aware of the power and privilege of physicians. When his uncle got sick, he was visited at home by a doctor whom the family “treated like a king,” Dr. Mower told an interviewer.

“They made him sit down; they made him have a cup of tea. I thought, ‘Gee, that’s not bad. That’s what I would like to do. It would be nice to be treated that way.’ ”

He received a bachelor’s degree in 1955 from Johns Hopkins University, graduated in 1959 from the University of Maryland medical school and completed his residency at Sinai Hospital. After serving for two years in the Army Medical Corps, stationed in West Germany, he completed a fellowship in cardiology and launched his professional career at Sinai in 1966, serving as co-investigator of a coronary drug project.

Dr. Mower was later chief of cardiology at Sinai Hospital, which was renamed a medical office building in his honor in 2005, and continued working with Mirowski to develop cardiac resynchronization therapy, a treatment for congestive heart failure. He was also an executive at medical companies including Cardiac Pacemakers, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly, and was on the medical school faculty at Johns Hopkins and Howard University.

After moving to Denver around 2010, he taught at the University of Colorado medical school in Aurora. The school was one of several institutions that exhibited artwork collected by Dr. Mower and his wife, Toby, a nurse who helped launch residential recovery homes in Baltimore for people battling drug and alcohol addiction.

Together, they built what Florida State University once described as the world’s largest private collection of Rembrandt etchings, in addition to acquiring Rodin sculptures, modern art by Chagall and Picasso, and works by Impressionist masters such as Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Matisse .

The collection began as a financial investment around the early 1990s, after a dealer told Dr. Mower that Japanese banks were selling off their collections. “We started there — and then more became available, and I bought them,” he told a Florida State interviewer in 2019. “And then more became available and I bought them, and it got totally out of control.”

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Toby Kurland, of Denver; two children, Mark, of Beverly Hills, Calif., and Robin, of Arvada, Colo.; to brother; to sister; and three grandsons.

In addition to the ICD, Dr. Mower’s name was on more than 80 other patents, including one for to ski boot I have designed to help skiers make tight turns in the snow.

“He had a real attitude that life was scarier than death,” his son said, “because he was afraid to waste a moment. That was always his drive from him — if he was told something could n’t be done, he’d figure out how it could be done.

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